Leonard Fournette is about to lose a little control over his carefully cultivated football career.
The former LSU star running back got to choose where he played in high school — a New Orleans private school called St. Augustine — and in college. But Fournette sounds ready to accept whatever fate brings him in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday night.
Some teams drafting early in the first round might be a better fit for the 6-foot-1, 228-pound power runner than others, but Fournette asserts, "It doesn't matter. I'm not really focused on that.
"Wherever I'm going, I plan on starting, playing my role and my main focus is on a championship — a Super Bowl and nothing less," Fournette said in an interview with The Associated Press while doing promotional work for the sports nutrition supplement MET-Rx this week.
Given his rare combination of size, strength and speed, Fournette knows he might be able to influence the process. One of his fellow New Orleans natives, Eli Manning, did it during the 2004 draft, orchestrating a trade from San Diego to the New York Giants.
Fournette was just in grammar school then, but said he remembers it. Fournette said he didn't have a problem with Manning's tactics, but does not believe he needs to resort to that, even though his long-term earning potential could be influenced considerably by which team takes him.
"I believe whatever team I go to, they're going to try to help me, the best way to get the ball into my hand, to do what I have to do," Fournette said. "It's 50-50. The player has to be committed to the team and the team has to be all in, in order to be what they want to be."
It's now rare for running backs to break the bank in free agency, although there is some sign that could change as pro football continues to evolve. Still, running backs tend to last less than 10 years in the NFL, meaning even some of the best only get one shot at a big free-agent contract after the expiration of their rookie deal, which is based on a pre-determined scale tied to the selection with which they are drafted.
Once their second contracts end, most running backs are seen as past their prime and have to accept deals that are modest by comparison to those given to quarterbacks, receivers, pass rushers and defensive backs.
If Fournette ends up with a dysfunctional club, or playing behind an offensive line built more for pass blocking than run blocking, or if he simply plays in an ineffective offense, it could limit his production considerably over the life of his first contract. That, in turn, could weaken his negotiating leverage when his first chance to become a free agent approaches in four or five years.
Fournette, however, sounded confident that his value would become self-evident if he performs well in whatever role his first NFL team gives him — even if it doesn't mean racking up elite rushing statistics.
"It's not about me. It's the team," Fournette said. "Whatever team I'm going to, I'm willing to do what I have to do to make the team better. That's not the team trying to fit me. At the end of the day, I have to go in there and fit with those guys, too."
In three seasons at LSU, Fournette gained 4,356 yards from scrimmage, mostly as a rusher and sometimes catching passes out of the backfield. Despite playing his entire senior season with an injured ankle, he rushed for 843 yards in seven games. As a sophomore, he rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 TDs, and had more than 2,200 hundred yards from scrimmage. He never fulfilled the Heisman Trophy hype with which he entered LSU, but that might have been different if the Tigers hadn't struggled in the passing game in recent years, allowing defenses to key more on stopping him.
Fournette is optimistic that recent successes of the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and the Rams' Todd Gurley have improved the draft stock of top running back prospects. After being drafted fourth overall out of Ohio State last year, Elliott rushed for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns.
"I think Todd Gurley and I think Zeke did a great job representing the running backs coming out," Fournette said. "They did a great job in the league showing guys that if you draft a running back in the first round you wouldn't regret it."
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