Only four months have elapsed since Leonard Fournette arrived at mandatory minicamp as a biscuit risk, bearing considerably more body mass than the Bucs preferred.
At that point, the team’s every-down back appeared roughly 20 pounds overweight. During the three-day minicamp, his feet seemed as heavy as his breathing, and he struggled to handle the short Tom Brady throws he had routinely snagged the previous season.
But circumstances change on a dime in the frenetic world of the NFL. Fournette grinded like mad the seven ensuing weeks, asserted himself as the Bucs’ resident three-down workhorse in training camp and sparkled (21 carries, 127 yards) in the season opener.
All of which has created a dilemma of a different sort.
Having taken the pounds off, it seems Fournette now struggles to get a play off. The Bucs are leaning on him too much. Overweight has evolved to overworked.
“A lot of it’s a lot of trust in Lenny more than it is the other guys,” head coach Todd Bowles acknowledged.
Entering Week 4, Fournette was tied for third in the NFL with 66 touches, prompting questions of whether he can maintain such a workload over a 17-game season. In last week’s 14-12 loss to the Packers, he played 59 of his team’s 66 offensive snaps.
By contrast, two of the Bucs’ other three tailbacks — veterans Ke’Shawn “Sneak” Vaughn and Giovani Bernard — haven’t played an offensive snap this season. Heralded rookie Rachaad White has totaled only 32. Currently, Bernard is on injured reserve (ankle).
And while Fournette has endeared himself to Brady by evolving into a solid pass protector and receiver (nine catches on 12 targets, 54 yards), he has managed only 100 yards on 36 carries (2.8 per attempt) over the last two games. The Bucs’ 86 rushing yards a game ranks 25th in the league.
“I feel like the coaches, they’re going to find a way to help me out with a lot of the guys coming in, Rachaad and ‘Sneak’ and things like that,” Fournette said.
Bowles and Leftwich have acknowledged as much in recent days.
“They can do all those (necessary) things,” Bowles said Wednesday. “We just have to put them in there and let them play.”
The prior reluctance to complement Fournette has seemed baffling, considering Vaughn’s performance late last season and White’s emergence over the summer.
With Fournette sidelined by a hamstring injury, Vaughn ran for 130 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries over the final three regular-season games, then had a solid performance (17 carries, 53 yards, one TD) in the playoff win against the Eagles.
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But he was beaten out for the backup job in training camp by White, the team’s third-round pick in April.
“They do everything that they’re supposed to do,” Fournette said. “On time for meetings, writing notes, things that you’re supposed to do as a professional.”
Problem is, White hasn’t found a rhythm during his cameo appearances, struggling in pass protection and dropping a Brady pass at New Orleans. To date, he has 15 yards on eight carries, and two catches for 7 yards.
“What we were doing, we were giving him series, and it just so happened that Rachaad’s series didn’t go well and they were quick and he was more out of the game,” Leftwich said.
“But I’ll do a better job of getting all those guys involved, because we need to do that to help the room out, to help Lenny out and (keeping) Lenny from playing so many plays.”
Fournette himself seems warm to that philosophy.
“I told them earlier, ‘Listen, we’re going to have to start sharing the snaps,’ because I know those guys practice all week or whatever the case may be,” he said. “I know they want to get their reps in but as my job, I’m trying to prolong my career and help them, get them some snaps and things like that. Their time is going to come, for sure.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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