Bucs plan to release running back Leonard Fournette

The veteran running back says he asked to be let go after the disappointing 2022 season.
The Bucs plan to release running back Leonard Fournette prior to the start of the new league year on March 15. Fournette told the Tampa Bay Times he asked the team for his release following the 2022 season.
The Bucs plan to release running back Leonard Fournette prior to the start of the new league year on March 15. Fournette told the Tampa Bay Times he asked the team for his release following the 2022 season. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Feb. 28|Updated Feb. 28

INDIANAPOLIS ― Bucs general manager Jason Licht raved about rookie running back Rachaad White and even backup Ke’Shawn Vaughn on Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine.

Then a question was asked about Leonard Fournette.

Licht paused.

“I think Leonard Fournette still has several years left in him as a three-down back,” Licht said.

But it won’t be with the Bucs.

Tampa Bay is $56 million over the salary cap and plans to release Fournette prior to the start of the new league year on March 15.

Fournette told the Tampa Bay Times he requested to be let go by the Bucs following the 2022 season.

“I asked after the season to be (released), and they respected my wishes,” Fournette said. “So no bad blood.”

Fournette said quarterback Tom Brady’s retirement played heavily into his decision to ask for his release because he’s only interested in playing for a winner.

“Winning is everything,” Fournette said. “That’s all. And in my last three years here, that’s all we’ve done. But since my guy (Brady) left, that’s why I came, so my time here was up.”

Fournette is not the only member of the Bucs’ Super Bowl 55 championship team with whom they are expected to part. Left tackle Donovan Smith, tight end Cameron Brate and kicker Ryan Succop also are expected to be released by March 15.

“Well that’s part of the business part of it,” coach Todd Bowles said. “You know the business side of it is always ugly any time you have a good team; you’re gonna have some expensive players and you know when it’s time to pay the piper, you got to start to make some cuts and make the smart decisions without undercutting your team, but at the same time going forward and getting some young guys in here that can replace them.”

Fournette, who emerged as “Playoff Lenny” during the Bucs’ magical run to a Super Bowl 55 title following the 2020 season, lost his starting job to White halfway through the 2022 season when he averaged only 3.5 yards per carry.

The Bucs will save about $3.5 million on the cap by releasing Fournette.

Releasing the 31-year-old Smith would save the Bucs $9.9 million against the salary cap. He was second in the NFL last season for the most accepted penalties with 12 (for a league-high 100 yards) and two of his holding calls took away touchdowns. Smith also allowed a team-high six sacks.

If Smith is released, the Bucs will consider moving Tristan Wirfs from right to left tackle.

“We haven’t seen it yet in the NFL,” Licht said of Wirfs playing left tackle. “I think he has all the traits to do it, if that were the case where he had to do it.”

The Bucs were prepared to move without Fournette a year ago, before Brady decided to end his retirement. Fournette was visiting the Patriots as a free agent when Brady called and asked what he was doing up there.

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The Bucs re-signed Fournette to a three-year, $21 million contract with $9 million guaranteed. He was scheduled to earn about $7 million in 2023.

Even in his reduced role, Fournette caught 73 passes for 523 yards and three touchdowns last season. Heading into the NFL draft, White becomes the Bucs’ No. 1 tailback after 481 yards on 121 carries with one touchdown, a 3.7-yard average. He was more effective as a pass catcher with 50 receptions for 290 yards and two TDs.

Licht: Bucs could still draft a quarterback

Just because Kyle Trask is penciled in as a starter and the team plans to sign a veteran free agent to compete with him, it doesn’t mean the Bucs won’t draft a quarterback. On the contrary, Licht says.

Tampa Bay has the 19th overall selection, which may be too late for the marquee guys such as Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. But the value of the position and not having a proven starter will force the Bucs to look closely at the draft for quarterback help.

“Yes, it’s always a possibility,” Licht said of drafting a quarterback. “So the evaluations aren’t done yet. The tape is done, the season is done for these guys; but now you’ve got the combine, you’ve got the visits, you’ve got the interviews, you’ve got the workouts. All these things. And there’s several quarterbacks that we like in this draft, so it’s definitely a possibility.”

Lack of play-calling experience not a concern

Former Seahawks quarterbacks coach Dave Canales hasn’t called plays since he coached the junior varsity team at his alma mater of Carson High School in California. That didn’t bother Bowles, who said the Bucs’ new offensive coordinator will learn on the job like every other coach.

“You know why that doesn’t bother me? Because every coordinator for the first time has never called plays,” Bowles said.

“You have to become one at some point. You know, when I became a defensive coordinator for the first time, I’d never called the plays. You have to understand how to be a good football coach and you’re not going to like everything you call. But we’ll have a lot of practices and scrimmages and preseason games for him to get a chance to get a feel for what he can and can’t do, and what he wants to do and what he can afford to do. So I’m not worried about that.”

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