JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - The Jaguars moved another step closer to purging Tom Coughlin’s tumultuous tenure in Jacksonville.
The team waived running back Leonard Fournette on Monday, a stunning decision many outsiders view as the latest in a series of head-scratchers that could help the franchise get the No. 1 draft pick in April.
“If that’s the case, then the realization is if that happens, then I’m not going to be here,” coach Doug Marrone said. “At the end of the day, if I don’t win enough games or do enough with this team, I don’t foresee me still being employed. I’m doing everything I can to make sure we have the best team to make sure we win football games. That’s as simple as I can be on it.”
Coughlin, the team’s personnel chief the previous three years, wanted Fournette as the centerpiece of his old-school, run-first philosophy. It worked in 2017, although it became clear that Fournette needed to be a better pro. He was fined repeatedly for being late and skipping mandatory functions.
Coaches were ready to move on, but Coughlin wouldn’t do it. It was no coincidence that not long after Coughlin was fired last December, Fournette landed on the trading block.
General manager Dave Caldwell spent months trying to unload the player drafted fourth overall in 2017 - ahead of quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson - even though he was coming off a career year. Fournette was on the block during the NFL draft and again over the summer.
“We couldn’t get anything, a fifth, a sixth, anything,” Marrone said.
So they dumped the 25-year-old former LSU star one day after trading the 2017 Pro Bowl defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to Minnesota for two draft picks. Jacksonville also traded Jalen Ramsey, fellow cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive end Calais Campbell in the past 10 months.
“I am excited about what will come next for myself,” Fournette said in a thank you message to Jacksonville posted on social media. “Wherever that may be, know that you will get a player who is focused, motivated, and ready to get to work.”
The Jaguars have made it clear they’re trying to revamp what had become a fractured locker room, a setting partly blamed on Coughlin’s tyrannical ways and paying the wrong guys (Blake Bortles, Marqise Lee, Nick Foles).
“It’s going to fall to me as to who those best players are,” Marrone said. “At the end of the day, I’ve got to be able to field a team that I believe gives us the best chance to win. That’s what my role is and that’s what I’m doing.”
Still, no one expected the Jags to part ways with Fournette less than two weeks before the opener. They did so partly because new coordinator Jay Gruden wants to use a multitude of backs in his West Coast system, different guys for different formations and attacks, and there was no need to pay Fournette that kind of money and be wondering how he would react if he wasn’t the man.
He is due $4.17 million this season, a figure that was initially guaranteed. Any team that claims him would take on that salary. If he clears waivers - an unlikely scenario - he would become a free agent.
Jacksonville voided all the remaining guarantees in his rookie deal in December 2018, so Fournette would need to file a grievance to get any money from the Jags in 2020.
Fournette’s time in Jacksonville took a downward turn in 2018, which ended up being the worst of his football life. He was injured, suspended and on the bench in crunch time. He was fined, criticized and admittedly not in ideal shape late in the year.
The Jaguars voided part of his contract following his one-game suspension for fighting with Buffalo linebacker Shaq Lawson, and Coughlin ripped him for being “disrespectful” and “selfish” for sitting on the bench while injured and inactive during the season finale. Coughlin tried to fine Fournette an entire game check - around $99,000 - for his actions that day, but it was eventually rescinded.
Adding to Fournette’s issues, he was arrested in April 2019 for driving with a suspended license.
He bounced back last year with his best season. He topped 1,600 yards from scrimmage in 15 games, carrying 265 times for 1,152 yards and catching 76 passes for 522 yards. He scored only three touchdowns. He also fumbled just once in 341 touches.
Fournette has 2,631 yards rushing, 1,009 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns in three seasons since becoming ex-personnel chief Coughlin’s first draft pick since returning to Jacksonville. But with Coughlin gone, Caldwell declined to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal and tried to move on.
Marrone insisted Fournette did nothing to prompt his release, instead pointing to his scheme fit.
“It strictly has to do with on the field,” Marrone said.
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