Grant Cohn: Why 49ers shouldn't draft LSU's Leonard Fournette
Of all the things the 49ers could do with their first-round pick, drafting LSU running back Leonard Fournette would be the worst.
He shouldn't even be in the discussion.
But he may be in it, according to draft insider Tony Pauline. 'Sources with knowledge of the situation tell me the San Francisco 49ers are very high on Fournette and are seriously considering using the second pick of the draft to acquire him. The new front office wants a bigger back to run the offense and they're ready to give up on Carlos Hyde, who has had his struggles staying healthy since being drafted by the franchise in 2014.'
I buy that the 49ers want to replace Hyde — he's a disappointment. But I don't buy that they want to replace him with Fournette. I hope they don't want to.
History proves that no running back, other than Bo Jackson, is worth the No. 2 pick. And Fournette is no Bo. Fournette is more like Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner from 2015 who was a powerful, prolific college running back with average speed and agility, just like Fournette. Henry was the 45th pick last year. He's not a franchise-changing talent. He hasn't changed things for the Titans.
And Fournette isn't a franchise-changing talent either, especially for a franchise like the 49ers that has so many other immediate needs. Fournette may carry the ball 17 times per game, but he can't play corner, linebacker and safety, too. Those are the positions the Niners have to fill with premier players.
They don't need a premier running back. Both Kyle Shanahan and his father, Mike, have had success on the ground without first-rounders carrying the ball. Look at the low draft picks and undrafted free agents who have prospered under the Shanahans.
Terrell Davis rushed for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1998 under Mike Shanahan, and this year was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Davis was a sixth-round pick in 1995.
Arian Foster rushed for 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2010 under Kyle Shanahan, who at the time was the offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans. Foster was an undrafted free agent in 2009.
Alfred Morris rushed 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2012 under Mike and Kyle Shanahan when those two coached together on the Washington Redskins. Morris was sixth-round pick.
Last season, Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined to rush for 1,599 yards and 19 touchdowns under Kyle Shanahan. Freeman was a fourth-round pick and Coleman was a third-round pick.
You get the point.
Shanahan can create a great running game without a first-round pick like Fournette. That's because the success of Shanahan's running game comes from his scheme, not from the talent of the tailback.
This is his scheme. Shanahan uses an outside-zone run game, which football coaches call a 'one-cut' scheme. The running back takes the handoff, runs parallel to the line of scrimmage and, once he's three yards past the tight end, makes one cut and bursts up the field. Not complicated. A lot of running backs can make one cut.
Shanahan doesn't ask his backs to make multiple jump cuts and spin moves through little creases between the tackles. Those are the types of moves a coach would ask a premier running back to make, someone like Bo Jackson or Marcus Allen or Barry Sanders.
Of course, I don't need to explain any of this to Kyle Shanahan. He knows he shouldn't overpay for a running back. Knows Fournette would be an awful pick for the 49ers.
So then why is Tony Pauline hearing the Niners are seriously considering Fournette with the No. 2 pick? Pauline is connected – he doesn't make these things up.
Here's my theory: The 49ers leaked a bogus rumor because they want to trade down, trade the No. 2 pick for multiple picks. They want to negotiate the pick, and they believe Fournette is the player some other team would want to trade up to get. Some team like the Carolina Panthers, who own the eighth pick, and may feel they're one premier running back away from returning to the Super Bowl, which they played in two seasons ago.
The 49ers must pretend they want Fournette. That's the game they're probably playing. Make the Panthers believe he won't fall to them at pick No. 8. Make the Panthers trade the 49ers a bunch of picks – two firsts, a second and a fourth.
This Wednesday, a reporter asked 49ers GM John Lynch if he's willing to trade down from the No. 2 pick. Lynch was honest. 'Yeah,' he said. 'We're open for business. We'd listen to anything.'
Lynch has the right idea. Turn the one first-round pick into a cornerback, a safety, a pass rusher and, above all else, a linebacker. Find the next Patrick Willis. Find the replacement for NaVorro Bowman.
Find the running back later. That's the sensible strategy for a team with a million needs.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the 'Inside the 49ers' blog for The Press Democrat's website. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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