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Roster Roulette: The road to 53

With NFL teams having to meet the mandatory roster reduction to 53 players by Saturday, some teams got head starts on what is sure to be a fluid roster management process over the holiday weekend. Teams currently can have no more than 80 players on their roster so needless to say there will be volumes of comings and goings in the near future. Let’s try and make some sense of several decisions, involving name players, that have already been made. 

Jacksonville continued to jettison former starters and high draft picks in an effort to remake their roster for the third time in seven years. The much-maligned Jaguars front office chose to release RB Leonard Fournette who they drafted with the 4th pick in the first round of the 2017 draft. That’s just three short years ago. Yep, that just happened. A swing and miss of epic proportions. 

Sure, we all know about former VP (and head coach) Tom Coughlin’s long-standing affinity for RB’s, but allow me to digress for a minute. Those of us on the inside of other team’s front offices knew this to be true. In 1996, the Coughlin-coached Jags had the 2nd overall pick in the draft and only a last second influx of information on character from some high-placed sources kept them from drafting Nebraska RB Lawrence Phillips at #2. Phillips later went with the 6th pick to the Rams. Google his name to find out how that worked out. Two years later in 1998, Coughlin had a pair of first-round picks and was known to be finalizing a deal to trade them both to the Bears to move up and draft RB Curtis Enis from Penn St. The deal fell thru only after the Jags thought they “had a deal” but didn’t. Standing pat instead, the Jaguars  later drafted RB Fred Taylor from Florida in the first round of that same draft. Sometimes the deals that you don’t make turn out to be the best kinds. So it wasn’t a surprise when, almost 20 years later, Coughlin was in charge again and when he thought he was drafting the next Fred Taylor for the Jags, he ended up drafting Leonard Fournette.   

After being released, Fournette quickly signed with the new flavor-of-the-month, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After studying recent tape on Fournette, I’m not sure about this fit. Fournette is a bigger back and his style is to run downhill between the tackles. He is at his best runner when he gets carries in bunches. Fournette is a three-down back whose production in 2019, behind a shaky Jags offensive line, was nonetheless impressive. It must be noted that a high percentage of his receptions, and he has really improved his hands since coming out of LSU, where on check downs and screen passes so he’s not really a route runner or a matchup advantage on a linebacker. His third-down strength is as a pass protector, which is a very valuable skill set in today’s NFL. I’m just not sure why he would go to Tampa? Does anyone think he will get 20 carries a game in that offense with the other flashy tools that coach Bruce Arians has in his tool box? I would be surprised if there was not another team, (Chicago or New England comes to mind) that could have been a better fit. With a one-year deal at $3.5 million, reportedly, Fournette could be setting himself up for free agency at the end of the season. However, as a spot player, I just don’t see his style or skill set being maximized. 

Speaking of the Patriots, they also made news this week with the release of WR Mohamed Sanu who they traded a second-round choice for during the 2019 season. Sanu came over in a trade from Atlanta and struggled to fit in to the Pats offense last year. He had 26 catches for only 207 yards. The fact that he is 31 years old and was due a salary of $6.5 million in 2020, along with the emergence late last year of WR N’Keal Harry, their first-round pick, made this an easy one for me. Sanu’s skill set never really made sense in this system and I questioned the trade to start with when it happened. Sanu is a longer geared(legged), must build to his speed, player who struggles to be sudden and to get free from tight coverage. As an inside player, he was easily jammed off his route and could not consistently make catches when he was covered. When he struggled, I saw Tom Brady lose confidence in him, even when he was open, and he found other places to go with the ball. Sanu always had questionable speed to play an outside receiver spot and a $6.5 million price tag made his expendable. Sanu may hook on somewhere else but he will probably have to settle for a lot less money to do so. He’s no longer the answer as a starter. 

The need for WR play in the league is still at a premium as evidenced by Seattle re-signing 29-year-old, five-time suspended, Josh Gordon, who is currently awaiting reinstatement from the league. He caught seven balls for the Seahawks last year during a six-week stint before his season ended, of course, with another suspension. Get this, in the last five years, Gordon has 86 total catches, that’s 17 catches a year.  Not exactly productive. When Gordon jogs out of the huddle, his frame and physical skills are evident. At 6034 and 225 lbs he is rare. Believe it or not, he can still run, he plays big and his hands are very soft. Gordon’s best year was 2014, in Cleveland, when it all came together for him. Coach Pete Carroll has a propensity to chase shiny new tools that have upside so his glass is half full, view of Gordon could be rewarded if somehow the talented receiver can get his life together. 

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