Leonard Fournette flourishes in Christian McCaffrey-type workload

Leonard Fournette rushed for a career-best 225 yards on Sunday against the Broncos. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Leonard Fournette played on all but 14 snaps in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 26-24 victory over Denver last Sunday.

What a slacker.

Kidding, of course. However, Fournette’s workload in 2019 is significantly higher than it was in the previous two seasons, and the 14 snaps of rest he had against the Broncos is more than he had in the first three weeks combined (10). Keeping Fournette on the field almost all the time was the Jaguars’ plan for 2019 and so far, despite Fournette’s injury history, it’s working out.

That kind of workload has so far been foreign to Fournette, who was on the field half the time as a rookie and was limited to just 27% of the Jaguars’ offensive snaps in 2018 because of injuries and a suspension. In an era when most teams are using multiple backs, the Jaguars are among a handful of teams almost exclusively using one.

Fournette has been on the field for 91% of the Jaguars’ offensive snaps and is one of three running backs in the league who are playing on 90% of their team’s offensive snaps. The other two are the New York Jets’ Le’Veon Bell (96 percent) and Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey, who has missed just four of the Panthers’ 261 snaps.

“That was our whole goal,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “That’s what we talked about from OTAs and from Day 1, really, of, ‘Hey, let’s get this guy in here, and let’s let him be a three-down back and keep him on the field as much as we can and be a playmaker.’”

It was not unusual for a running back to play more than 80% of his team’s snaps, but McCaffrey is making 90-plus a benchmark. ESPN Stats & Information’s tracking on snap counts goes back to 2007, and McCaffrey and Chicago’s Matt Forte were the only players since then to surpass 90% of their team’s snaps. McCaffrey led all NFL running backs at 91% last season (nobody else surpassed 83%) and Forte led all backs at 92% in 2014.

McCaffrey, who along with Fournette was a top-10 pick in 2017, played 70% of the Panthers’ snaps as a rookie. The Panthers star was one of five backs to surpass 70% that season and last season as well. This season, there are nine backs who have played at least 70% of their team’s snaps.

It’s a different look for the Panthers, who had the benefit of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart sharing the workload from 2008-14. Mike Tolbert helped fill in when they were injured, too, but Williams and Stewart were the headliners. Their best season as a tandem was 2009, when they both surpassed 1,000 yards.

Now the Panthers rely on McCaffrey. He has all but 15 of the Panthers’ rush attempts and 411 of their 433 rushing yards. He’s also the team’s leading receiver (25 catches) and has scored five of the team’s nine touchdowns.

McCaffrey had 326 touches last season, and coach Ron Rivera said in the preseason the plan this season was to keep McCaffrey’s touches around 300 but decrease his workload, meaning they weren't asking McCaffrey to be on the field to block or be used in pass protection as much. Yet he has still been on the field for 98% of the Panthers’ offensive snaps through the first four weeks.

He apparently can handle it, and Rivera said they wouldn’t be asking him to do it if he couldn’t.

“I just think it’s about the player,” Rivera said. “First of all, it’s hard to keep two really good backs because you can’t afford them. A great example of that is New Orleans. I mean, [Mark] Ingram left. They’ve got good backs, but right now they don’t have the combination they had in the past.

“We were fortunate with DeAngelo and Jonathan. That was special. We were very fortunate to have both of those guys when I first got here. You didn’t have to worry about that position for a while. Then Christian comes along and becomes the player he’s becoming, and he’s still got room to grow.”

McCaffrey leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage (629), followed by Dalvin Cook (524) and Fournette (518). He’s also tops in touches (111), followed by Nick Chubb (92) and Fournette (88). And McCaffrey leads the NFL in rushing (411), followed by Cook (410) and … Fournette (404). That means that two of the league’s top backs in terms of production will be on the same field Sunday in Charlotte.

Fournette is coming off his best game as a pro: 225 yards on 29 carries, both career highs. He now has 72 of the Jaguars’ 95 carries. The only other running back with a carry is rookie Ryquell Armstead, who had eight of his nine carries against the Broncos. Armstead is likely to become more involved as the season progresses to give Fournette some kind of a break. It’s risky to assume Fournette can continue his current pace, considering he’s missed 11 games because of injuries and suspensions the past two seasons.

“I love the way Leonard is playing right now,” offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. “I love his mindset; I love where he is mentally. He is into it right now and that’s what we need.

“As you see us go along into the season, there’s no doubt we will get a little bit more of a rotation in there as those guys grow. At the same time, I’ll be honest with you, it’s hard to take a player like Leonard Fournette out of the game. It really is. The way he’s playing right now and buying in and doing what we’re asking him to do. Pass protecting, catching the ball, running downhill, and all the things you ask big-time backs to do. It’s hard to take them out of the game. As long as he stays healthy, you’re going to see Leonard Fournette a lot.”

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter David Newton contributed to this story.