LaVar Arrington compares Leonard Fournette to Bo Jackson. Herschel Walker says Fournette better than he was. Adrian Peterson can’t think of anyone better other than himself.
Fournette is arguably the best running back in college football right now and the Heisman Trophy favorite, and yet the way NFL rules are set up he’ll remain in college — despite how pro-ready he might look — for another 16 months or more.
Great for college football. Perhaps frightening for Fournette. And a conundrum for the NFL.
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The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement prevents player from entering until three years have passed from their high-school graduation. Here’s the full explanation of the rule from the 2011 CBA:
College football gets to hold onto Fournette for this season and next, and it will be great for its brand. LSU wins, too, making the Tigers a title contender as long as the 6-1, 230-pound bruising back remains healthy.
But therein lies the rub. Remember Marcus Lattimore? Yes, he was the South Carolina back who looked every bit as good as Fournette did, scoring 30 TDs and averaging 130.5 yards from scrimmage per game in his first 20 contests with the Gamecocks before horrifically blowing out his knee and forever altering his pro potential.
Although he returned to the field in college the following season miraculously, Latitmore applied for the draft early but fell to the fourth round after a second knee injury cut his junior season short.
Todd Gurley still landed in the top 10 of this past April’s draft, but he’s fortunate his ACL injury didn’t hurt his stock more. A suspension included, Gurley’s final season at Georgia consisted of a mere six games.
Is Fournette ready to enter the league now? One NFL scouting director we spoke with said — at first blush — yes, having seen Fournette once in person this season and once last season, but added that he’d need to do more work on him to be sure. Still, Fournette might even be in the discussion to be the best player in college football at this moment.
“I could say, sure, he’s the best player in college football,” an NFL scouting director told Shutdown Corner. “I guess I could make that argument, although there are a few [defensive linemen, Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett] I really like more from a value standpoint in terms of our league. But best player in college? Sure, why not.
“I just don’t see those backs going that high, even with the exceptions to the rule and all that, anymore. Remember the last guy [drafted] up there? What’s he doing now?”
That would be Trent Richardson, currently unemployed after one team traded him and two released him. He was the third pick of the 2012 draft and is now out of the league, perhaps for good.
Gurley went 10th overall. Peterson — the back to whom Fournette is most often compared — was the seventh pick in 2007. The last back other than Richardson to be taken in the first five picks was Darren McFadden (2008), who currently finds himself as the Dallas Cowboys’ backup.
The NFL has sold the myth for years that no players would be able to come straight from high school, or even after one or two years of college, to the NFL. In most cases, they’re right; most kids are not physically blessed enough, and the lack of development could hurt their progress.
But there always are exceptions. Peterson is one. Just this week he was asked if he could have made it as an 18-year-old NFL player.
“Not to sound cocky or anything, but I do,” Peterson said.
He’s probably right. And has Peterson seen Fournette, his supposed doppelganger? He said Fournette must be good if people are comparing the two of them.
“I always take it as a compliment when people compare [me to] great backs,” Peterson said. “But I really haven’t seen him play. I’ve just seen highlights.”
Fournette has the potential to be a top-10 pick. But the risk of injury for a player who has averaged about 20 carries and catches per game in his past 10 contests dating back to last season is concerning. The Tigers have another eight games scheduled this season, and they could play two more with an SEC title game appearance and a bowl game.
That means Fournette will be eligible to play in at least 20 more games — and somewhere around 400-450 touches — before the NFL will open its doors to him.
Fournette can’t go play in the CFL, as some have suggested he do. The two leagues have a deal to prevent non-draft-eligible players from plying their trade up north as a method of stalling. He certainly could opt to sit out the college season in 2016, but Fournette would risk NFL teams questioning his desire to play and love of the game, fairly or not, if he chose that route.
Damned (possibly) if he does play, damned if he doesn’t.
“That would be an issue for some teams, yes,” the director said. “He’d be grilled on it at every interview he does [with teams].”
One more factor: The 2017 class of backs could be an all-timer, at least for this passing generation. Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Arkansas’ Alex Collins, Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, Wisconsin’s Corey Clement and Fournette all could be eligible for that class (although Elliott, Henry, Clement and Hunt could come out early after this season).
That would be one of the more loaded classes in recent NFL history, further complicating Fournette’s projection as a possible top pick.
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NFL draft notes
• With Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Tony Romo all hurt, as well as with several teams’ running games stuck in neutral, it has become clear that the offensive line talent in this league is in a poor place. “It’s a crisis,” the above evaluator said. “The guys coming out are not ready in most cases. It used to be that you plugged in your [offensive linemen] right away and had to wait three years for receiver [to develop]. Now it’s the other way around.” There are some quality tackles and, to a lesser degree, guards who will be considered high in next spring’s draft. But because of a dearth of talent on the NFL level, it wouldn’t be shocking to see a run of O-linemen early on — with perhaps even several landing in the top half of Round 1.
• The 2015 NFL draft only featured a handful of centers (and a few of them were switched to guard), as year in and year out teams struggle to find quality pivots in the draft. The 2014 class featured some decent mid-round talents who have earned starting spots, and it appears that there might be some decent centers available in 2016. In addition to USC’s decorated Max Tuerk, who could push to be a late first-round pick, there are a handful of top-100-pick possibilities. Michigan State’s Jack Allen, Wisconsin junior Dan Voltz, Texas A&M’s Mike Matthews, Alabama’s Ryan Kelly, Missouri’s Evan Boehm, Notre Dame’s Nick Martin and UCLA’s Jake Brendel all will be in the mix to be at least mid-round picks next spring depending on how they continue to play this season.
• Entering the season, Virginia Tech CB Kendall Fuller appeared to be one of the more talented underclassmen at his position who could strongly consider coming out early in 2016 if he built on an excellent sophomore season. The problem was that he tried gamely to play through a torn meniscus the first three games of the season and just couldn’t do it. Fuller’s season is now over, and his NFL plans might have to be scrapped for next season if he was considering entering early. Fuller earned his coaches’ and teammates’ respect by trying to play through pain, but he might have hurt his NFL stock on a short-term basis by doing so, even though he’s expected to make a full recovery and be a full go for the 2016 football season.
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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!