The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will kick off the 2023 season with a different starting backfield following quarterback Tom Brady's retirement. The team released veteran running back Leonard Fournette officially on Friday.
Fournette told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday that he "asked after the season to be (released) and they respected my wishes. So no bad blood.''
The 28-year-old rusher re-signed with Tampa Bay on a three-year, $21 million contract last offseason after playing for the team on one-year deals in 2020 and 2021. The release was partially salary cap motivated since he had $2 million left in fully guaranteed money on his deal as well as $2 million roster bonus on March 19. Now, the Buccaneers can redistribute his cap hit across multiple seasons to lessen the burden.
The fourth overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Fournette joined the Buccaneers right before the start of the 2020 following a release, and he was an integral part of their Super Bowl LV championship team as he totaled four touchdowns during their postseason run -- three rushing and one receiving. In 2021, Fournette was one of only four players with over 800 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards, joining New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris.
However, Fournette's 2022 season got off to a rocky start when he showed up overweight to the team's OTAs and mandatory minicamp last offseason. He went on to average 3.5 yards per carry in 2022, the lowest of his Buccaneers career and the second-lowest number in the entire NFL that season among qualified rushers, ahead of only New York Jets running back Michael Carter. His dual-threat abilities as both a rusher and receiver still shined, though, as he was only one of three players in the entire league last season with over 650 rushing yards (668) and over 500 receiving yards (523) along with San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey and Ekeler.
Now, Fournette is one of many options teams can grab in order to fill out their running back rooms for 2023. Below, check out some of the intriguing landing spots that could be available to the veteran now that he's on the open market.
The Buffalo Bills need to take some of Josh Allen's rushing attempts off his plate for his long-term health. His 124 carries in 2022 were more than Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt and the third most among all quarterbacks, trailing only the Eagles' Jalen Hurts (165) and the Bears' Justin Fields. Allen was productive as his 5,045 total yards and 42 total touchdowns were both the second most in the league behind MVP Patrick Mahomes. However, a symptom of Allen doing everything was him leading the NFL with 19 turnovers, a stat a quarterback never wants to be associated with.
The Bills have tried to find solutions in the backfield between Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, Nyheim Hines and James Cook. None have stood out in a major way so far. Fournette could provide a dual-purpose back Allen could lean on both near the goal line and in the passing game.
The Cincinnati Bengals' reliable No. 2 running back and strong pass blocker Samaje Perine is gone, having signed a two-year, $7.5 million contract with the Denver Broncos. Fournette could be a perfect replacement. He thrived during the Buccaneers' Super Bowl run in 2020, so the bright lights wouldn't phase him should Cincy make a run again in 2023. He would be a reliable blocker and punishing option in the Bengals backfield.
With NFL scrimmage touchdowns leader Austin Ekeler looking into a trade after voicing frustration about his contract situation, Fournette could be a lower budget replacement for him alongside Justin Herbert. He brings a similar skillset as Ekeler in a larger package, something that could benefit the Chargers in the red zone where they ranked 17th in red zone touchdown percentage (54.1%) in 2022.
With Cam Akers set to enter the final season of his rookie deal, Fournette could be a nice complement with Malcolm Brown hitting the market. Even though the Rams are looking to shed cap hits with the release of Bobby Wagner and the reported interest in trading Jalen Ramsey's contract, Los Angeles might be able to get Fournette on a lower number than expected given the saturation of running backs in free agency. He could be the thunder to Akers' lightning as head coach Sean McVay may opt to go for a more run-heavy approach in 2023 given quarterback Matthew Stafford's injuries in 2022.