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What if Leonard Fournette falls to the Bengals in the 2017 NFL Draft?

Though the Bengals’ season is far from over, we look at an opportunity they may have ahead of them in drafting a game-changer in the 2017 NFL Draft. Should they select running back Leonard Fournette if he’s available?

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The Cincinnati Bengals’ strategy in building their mini-empire over the past six years has been in their draft-and-develop strategy. Part of what has led to the team’s five straight postseason berths has been in their selecting of the best player available by the time they make their selection.

This season isn’t over for the team by any means, but unless they win out and get some help, the Bengals will be looking at the 2017 NFL Draft sooner than everyone hoped. Depending on where they end up in the draft order, (they’re currently slated to pick 12th) a high-quality player should land to them—even if he doesn’t play a perceived position of need.

As you look at the current NFL landscape, the Dallas Cowboys have found an interesting formula for success. After building up a formidable offensive line, the team drafted two talented rookies in quarterback Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Even so, the selection of Elliott at No. 4 overall was a bit of a wild card at the time, given the league’s devaluation of the position in recent years.

However, Elliott running behind that line with Prescott throwing to Dez Bryant has conjured up visions of the 1990s trio of Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin. The Cowboys are currently 11-2 and have caused the league to re-think the status of the value of the running back position.

This year, LSU running back Leonard Fournette has that type of draft stock as teams look to the future. He might be a top-five type of selection, especially with Elliott’s impact over the past three years, but he’s missed a few games with injury in 2016, possibly causing him to fall a little bit.

When you look at the Bengals, they are currently stacked at running back going forward. Still, there are a couple of underlying issues in the long-term future at the position and the proposition of passing up on a possible franchise-changer might end up biting them in the rear end.

What should the Bengals do if the LSU star back ends up falling to them in the draft? Scott Schultze and I discussed the proposition on this week’s Orange and Black Insider.

Scott noted that Elliott’s 2016 success, much like that of almost every other running back, has to do with the offensive line. After all, Dallas currently employs three first round picks up front with Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick paving the way for a possible MVP crown for the rookie back.

Personally, I’m on the fence and below are the listed pros and cons as to why I feel that way.

Why it makes sense:

Immense production with poor quarterback play: Fournette has been one of college football’s best players over the past three seasons with inconsistent quarterback play. The SEC remains one of, if not the best conference in the NCAA ranks and the tough defenses the Tigers face consistently game plan to attack the run. I mean, we’re talking about a hodgepodge of signal-callers who barely combine to throw for 2,000 yards in a season and have a tough time cracking the 55% completion mark. The fact that Fournette has amassed early 4,500 yards from scrimmage and 41 total touchdowns (40 rushing, one receiving) since 2014 is a near-miracle.

A quietly cloudy future with Bengals backs: Giovani Bernard is coming off of a torn knee ligament, while Rex Burkhead is facing free agency after this year. Jeremy Hill, who has had his ups and downs in three years as a Bengal, will be a free agent after 2017. Aside from hoping Bernard returns to form, Cincinnati has to hang their hat on he and Hill as the long-term solution if they eschew an opportunity to take Fournette.

Personnel turnover and becoming a run-first team: I give a lot of credit to Andy Dalton for his MVP-like 2015 campaign and his weathering of an offseason of major personnel turnover on his unit. In just his sixth year as a pro quarterback, Dalton has had three coordinators and might be seeing a new one in the near future if the Bengals fizzle out during the rest of 2016. Even so, the run game has been wildly inconsistent in his time with the Bengals. In the smash-mouth AFC North, can you picture a lineup with Fournette getting 25 carries a game, finally successfully setting up play-action plays to A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert? Wow.

Why it doesn’t make sense:

Other needs: Regardless of how the Bengals end up in the 2016 standings, there are glaring holes. Some of those might be filled with the returns of 2016 rookies Andrew Billings and William Jackson III, who are on injury redshirt seasons, but wide receiver, defensive end, linebacker and other positions need replenishing over running back.

Offensive line issues: Cincinnati once employed one of the best lines in the NFL. Age, personnel turnover and other issues have plagued the team this year, and as Scott mentioned in the show, Fournette might not have the type of pro career if the Bengals don’t shore up the problems up front.

Comparable stats to Jeremy Hill: While Hill wasn’t seen as promising of a prospect as Fournette, when you look at the college stats, the similarities are staggering. Hill had one less year of college ball under his belt, but both he and Fournette averaged 6.2 yards per carry and had about 14 rushing touchdowns per year. Fournette had the insane 1,953-yard, 22-touchdown performance in 2015, but depending on your stance on Hill as an NFL back, might they be a bit more of college system backs?

Injuries: It’s become a bit apparent that Fournette is playing it a little bit safe for his long-term career, but he only played seven games in 2016. It didn’t stop the Rams from taking Todd Gurley 10th overall in 2015 after he suffered a massive knee injury in 2014, but teams might shy away from that issue.

What are your thoughts on if Fournette falls to the Bengals in the 2017 draft?

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