Jaguars' Leonard Fournette taking big steps after his 2018 stumble

Leonard Fournette is third in the NFL in rushing yards (584) and yards from scrimmage (773) in 2019. Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY Sports

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Leonard Fournette’s career appeared to be at a crossroads when he left the Jacksonville Jaguars' facility in January.

After a disappointing season filled with injuries, a suspension and questions about the running back's work ethic, maturity and professionalism, it was fair to wonder if Fournette would even make it to the end of his rookie contract after the 2020 season.

Nine months later, there’s a different feeling inside the organization about Fournette, the fourth overall pick in 2017. While nobody is ready to proclaim him the model for how a professional football player should act and behave, there's a sense Fournette has taken huge steps forward and there's cautious optimism that will continue.

“I don’t want to get into where [people are saying], ‘He was awful,’ but has he gotten better? I think absolutely,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “A lot of players have, though, from the first year or second year and having gone through injuries, which is always tough. So, you see that in a lot of the players that we have now, more so on the offensive side probably, because of more injures [that have] taken place there than the defensive side. So you see that, and it's great growth.

“You go through a day and you think, ‘Hey, what can I do to be a better teammate? What can I do to be a better coach?’ Every day that you go through your job, or your situation, you want to be better. You want to be better for everyone. So, it’s not just Leonard -- it’s everyone. But Leonard’s done a very good job and I’m very happy in the direction that he’s going.”

A quick recap of what happened in 2018:

  • Fournette missed seven full games and half of two others with hamstring and foot injuries. There was some frustration inside the building about the length of his absence with the hamstring injury. He also gained nearly 20 pounds during the season.

  • He was suspended for a game after coming off the bench and punching Buffalo defensive lineman Shaq Lawson. The team told him it was not going to guarantee the rest of his contract (which only becomes an issue if they cut him) because of that suspension, the second game missed for disciplinary reasons. He was inactive for one game as a rookie for leaving the team early during the bye week and missing the team photo.

  • Fournette was caught on video yelling at a fan in the stands during the team’s loss at Tennessee on Dec. 6. Fournette said several days later that a fan used a racial slur, a claim teammate T.J. Yeldon corroborated.

  • Executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin released a statement criticizing Fournette (who was inactive because of a foot injury) and Yeldon -- who now plays for the Buffalo Bills -- for sitting alone on the bench and acting disinterested during the season finale.

  • Add in his April arrest for driving with a suspended license, for which he eventually paid a $303 fine, and it’s easy to see why the Jaguars had reservations about Fournette.

It’s why they signed running backs Alfred Blue and Benny Cunningham in free agency and drafted Ryquell Armstead in the fifth round. Nobody was really sure what to expect from Fournette in 2019: Would he be healthy? If so, could he handle the intense workload that new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo wanted to give Fournette? Would he be on time for every meeting? Would he keep his rehab appointments? Would he know the offense, stay in shape and act like a pro?

So far, so good.

Fournette went to the University of Wyoming to work out with a former LSU strength coach during the offseason instead of training in New Orleans. Fournette didn’t attend every OTA, but Marrone said he was pleased with the way Fournette practiced and worked when he did attend. Fournette reported to training camp in good shape and hasn’t missed a practice.

Fournette hasn’t appeared on the injury report yet this season. He’s playing 92% of the Jaguars’ offensive snaps, is third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (773) and rushing (584), and DeFilippo called him the team’s best pass-blocking back. He knows the offense. And there hasn’t been even a rumor of any missed meetings or other issues.

There are also other small signs Fournette is different. He played in only one game in the preseason, but when he wasn’t on the field, he wore a headset so he could hear DeFilippo’s playcalls -- and that was at his request. When the young backs came off the field, Fournette would spend some time with them, too.

It was Fournette who stepped in to pull Marrone away from cornerback Jalen Ramsey during their sideline argument in Houston.

So there is progress. There’s still much more for him to prove, but there is progress.

His teammates have noticed.

“The ... stuff last season that probably people didn’t like, I think he probably saw it as a small thing, and then once he saw the whole bigger picture, it’s definitely something that he wanted to correct,” said defensive tackle Abry Jones, who at seven seasons is the longest-tenured Jaguars player. “You never want to show that. People that know him, he’s a great guy, great teammate and things like that, so [he’s] showing how he’s matured and proven day by day, showing how much he cares for himself, how much he cares for the game and how much he cares for his teammates.”

Fournette doesn’t like to talk about the disaster of last season, for both himself and the team, which fell apart after a rash of injuries, poor quarterback play and a fractured locker room. He admits he made mistakes then and in the offseason, but he’s more focused on this season and believes this team, despite being 2-4 heading into Sunday’s game at Cincinnati, will be successful.

“I think growth [is the reason],” Fournette said. “Especially from the time you’ve been playing with the team, and also I guess a lot of things you go through with the team, too. The vibe is just different from last year. Despite everything that we had going on, despite what we have going on right now, the vibe is there.

“We’re playing for each other and that’s a good thing. We’ve got to keep it up.”