Leonard Fournette Linked to NFC Rival

Leonard Fournette

Getty Leonard Fournette could land with a division rival after his release from the Bucs.

While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers expect to compete in 2023, the release of running back Leonard Fournette could make things more challenging.

NFC South rival New Orleans could snatch up Fournette as Bleacher Report’s Maurice Moton sees it. Moton named the Saints among the best destinations for Fournette after the Bucs release him in March. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero broke the news on Tuesday, February 28, regarding the Bucs’ plan to release Fournette.

“New Orleans has an unsettled quarterback situation and a running back whose short-term availability seems uncertain. If Fournette signs with New Orleans, he could handle the lion’s share of touches if [Alvin] Kamara misses significant time,” wrote Molton, who noted Kamara’s off-field issues.

Molton also noted that Fournette grew up in Louisiana and that he once played for Saints offensive line coach Doug Marrone. Other teams Molton suggested as possible destinations for Fournette include the Buffalo Bills, and Los Angeles Chargers.

Fournette Wanted the Release

Tampa Bay’s decision to release Fournette didn’t originate solely from the front office, at least according to Fournette.

“I asked after the season to be [released] and they respected my wishes,” Fournette told the Tampa Bay Times according to reporter Rick Stroud. “So no bad blood.”

Pelissero noted that Fournette “has $2 million fully guaranteed on his contract and another $2 million would’ve become fully guaranteed on March 19”, but the Bucs can “spread the cap hit” over multiple years instead.

Fournette, 28, will go down as one of the biggest postseason playmakers in Bucs history. He tallied 448 total yards and scored four touchdowns to aid the Bucs Super Bowl-winning postseason run in 2020.

His success continued in the 2021 season, including the playoffs where he scored two touchdowns in one playoff game. However, his 2022 season didn’t bring similar results in the playoffs with just 15 total yards against the Dallas Cowboys.

Fournette became a potential salary cap casualty instead as the team entered the offseason in the red with $56 million over the cap.  Tampa Bay previously signed Fournette to a three-year deal worth $21 million, and he would cause an overall cap hit of $8.47 million had he stayed. The Bucs will save $3.5 million with Fournette’s release.

Bucs GM Sees Future for Fournette in NFL

Bucs general manager Jason Licht, who talked with reporters at the NFL Combine earlier that day, didn’t directly tip his cap about Fournette. Licht talked about Bucs running backs Rachaad White and Ke’Shawn Vaughn initially, but Licht also expressed confidence about Fournette’s future.

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

Fournette only averaged 3.5 yards per carry in a rushing attack that finished last in the league for 2022. The former LSU star isn’t far removed from his best regular season performances though. He averaged a career-high 4.5 yards per carry in 2021 when he led the team in rushing with 812 yards and eight touchdowns on 180 carries.

His role as a pass-catcher also grew while in Tampa. He increased his receptions, yards, and touchdowns each season in the passing game with the Bucs.

Fournette also remained a sure-handed ball carrier with only one fumble in his time as a Buc. He only had three before that with his original team, the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Fournette’s Journey Takes Familiar Turn

The Jaguars selected Fournette with the No. 4 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and he burst on the scene with 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns. He helped the Jaguars reach the AFC Championship Game that year, but his career went downhill after that due in part to injury.

Jacksonville released Fournette in 2020, and the Bucs signed him before Week 1. Recently retired Bucs quarterback Tom Brady played a role in recruiting Fournette to Tampa Bay.

Fournette can test free agency next month amid a field of notable available running backs. Other free agents include Saquon Barkley, Kareen Hunt, Rachaad Penny, Jamaal Williams, Josh Jacobs, and Mark Ingram.