Why Fournette edges out Cook as the nation’s best pure runner

Jeff Dooley breaks down the numbers and shows why Leonard Fournette has a clear advance over Dalvin Cook heading into the 2016 season.

| 4 months ago
(AP Photo/Jim Lytle)

(AP Photo/Jim Lytle)

Why Fournette edges out Cook as the nation’s best pure runner


Previously this offseason we explained why Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey should be considered the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, as a result of his all-around ability as a runner, pass-catcher and kick returner. No offensive player was more productive overall last season, and he should have an excellent 2016 campaign.

But he is far from the only elite running back returning to college football this season, and there are two players in particular who warrant consideration as the best pure runner in the nation: LSU’s Leonard Fournette and FSU’s Dalvin Cook.

Both players performed extremely well in 2015, and are showing up on preseason Heisman watch lists. But which is the better rusher?

When we went back to compare the two, Cook made an impressive case, but Fournette came away with the clear advantage. Here’s why:

No runner broke more tackles in 2015 than Fournette

There’s no question that Cook was one of the most difficult running backs to tackle in college football last season. He averaged 4.0 yards per rush after contact in 2015, the third-highest average in the nation and over half of his 7.4 yards per carry average. He also finished fifth in the nation in elusive rating, which is PFF’s measure of how effective a running back is at generating yards independent of his blocking. (The Seminoles produced an average overall run-blocking grade in 2015, slightly lower than LSU’s.)

Fournette ranked just behind Cook in yards after contact per attempt at 3.8 (of his 6.5), but actually earned a better elusive rating, ranking tied for third with Oregon’s Royce Freeman. (Here is why Freeman is poised to push McCaffrey for the title of the Pac-12’s top running back.)

But where Fournette really distinguished himself was in his ability to break tackles. He had 85 forced missed tackles as a runner alone (he added 10 more as a receiver) — the highest number in the nation. To put into perspective just how good that is, Heisman winner Derrick Henry of Alabama had 76 as a runner – on 96 more attempts than Fournette.

The LSU star racked up that total on the strength of a lot of runs like this one versus Auburn:

FournetteBreakingTackles

Cook ranked an impressive 13th in the nation with 56 forced missed tackles (he added 12 more as a receiver), but that certainly pales significantly in comparison to Fournette’s output.

Cook might be the best breakaway threat in college football — but Fournette isn’t bad, either

The biggest argument for picking Cook over Fournette as the best running back in the country is his big-play ability. Cook ranked sixth nationally in total rushing yards with 1,696, trailing Fournette and his 1,916 total yards, among others.

But no back in the nation earned more yardage off of runs of 15 yards or more than Cook, with his 1,066. This run against South Florida provides us an excellent example of Cook’s breakaway ability:

DCookLongRun

If Cook repeats this level of big-play prowess in 2016, there’s no doubt he’ll find himself in the mix for the Heisman and the title of nation’s best running back. But Fournette isn’t exactly a slouch when it comes to breakaway runs, either. His 834 yards on breakaway runs ranked fifth nationally, and his combination of speed in the open field and power to shed tackles both at the line of scrimmage and downfield makes him a threat to go the distance at any time.

Fournette is better than Cook in the passing game

This article is about which player is the better pure runner (because neither comes close to McCaffrey’s production as a pass-catcher out of the backfield), but it’s worth noting that as a receiver and pass protector, Fournette measures out better than Cook.

Here is how each player ranks nationally in yards per pass route run and pass-blocking efficiency:

Player YPRR PBE
Fournette 20 18
Cook 42 93

An area of improvement for both players is drop rate: Cook ranked 61st among 72 eligible running backs after dropping four of 28 catchable passes, while Fournette fared even worse, ranking 70th with four drops on 23 catchable passes.

Fournette graded better on an overall basis, including some monster games

Only McCaffrey earned a higher overall grade among running backs this season than Fournette, and no RB earned a higher rushing grade. Cook was impressive as well, earning the 10th-best overall grade and seventh-best rushing grade. But Fournette was in a class of his own as a runner for most of the year, in part due to some exceptional individual game performances. His game grades in Weeks 3 and 4 against Auburn and Syracuse were off the charts, and he was similarly excellent against Florida in Week 7 and in the Tigers’ bowl win over Texas Tech. He only had one negative grade all season, Week 12 versus Ole Miss, compared to two from Cook (versus NC State and in FSU’s bowl loss to Houston).

Bottom line

None of this is meant to poke holes in Cook’s game — he is one of the best returning players in all of college football, and deserves to be considered a Heisman contender right up there with McCaffrey and Fournette. But there isn’t a more unstoppable force when running the football entering the 2016 season than Fournette, and if the Tigers can get good play out of returning starting QB Brandon Harris and their new-look defense, he should have them in the SEC title and playoff races.

 

| Editor-in-Chief

Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.

  • Nick Cortez

    Agreed! McCaffery is underrated by most sources, but I would put him and Fournette as the clear leaders in the best RB race with Cook following close behind. But no team would be upset to have any of those 3 guys in their backfield.

    • JB

      Cook is the best RB by far he put up those numbers and he wasn’t 100% and with less games than Fournette and McCaffery. Something left out in the article is that Fournette plays in a predominantly run based offense where as FSU a 50-50 offense.

      • Mike J.

        Correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t Cook run all of one option play (vs. Miami), & go for about 80 yards & a TD?? With FSU’s QB depth, I wonder if we might see more of that this year?

      • Royce Tasker

        Fournette and Cook played in the same amount of games buddy. LSU had a game canceled because of weather in the season opener. Fournette would’ve easily topped 200 yards on that game. LSU had no passing game all season as well, teams would load the box and only back off if the offense hit a a few deep passes. I like Cook, but Fournette is better.

        • ripov

          no. they didnt. lsu played 1 game less than fsu. lsu was 9-3. fsu was 10-3.

          • Royce Tasker

            Calvin Cook played in 12 games last season. Just like Fournette. You’re talking team, the subject is about the number of games the two RBs played in.

          • ripov

            ok. didnt know he missed a game.

        • Environmental Advantage

          Cook missed 2.5 games total to injury btw……

          • ripov
          • Environmental Advantage

            When you add up the halves and complete games he was indeed out because of injury including BC, Wake Forest, and Syracuse it equals 2.5 games of “unavailability” due to injury…..so again 2.5 is accurate. Not even mentioning being taken out at halftime against Chattanooga. Good try based on games he started though……

          • ripov

            You really think fournette played every minute? That’s not how stats work. He played in the game? It counts. Good try though.

      • ripov

        oh, im sure you know so much more than the people who analyze this stuff for a living. if you think cook is better than fournette ‘by far’, you either dont know sh!t about football, or you didnt watch fournette play at all.

  • Cimmy Beckstead

    Look at the great blocking and horrible defensive technique on the Fournette GIF. This article doesn’t take into account how bad FSUs OL was last year, the fact that Cook had a hammy injury all year, or the fact that he had more ypc and yac than LF. More carries doesnt make a better RB.

    • ripov

      fournette had a game against a cupcake opponent cancelled. that games would have boosted his numbers a lot and pushed him well over 2000 yards. he was also running against sec defenses, not pitiful acc defenses. i watched them both last year. cook is no fournette.

      • Environmental Advantage

        Here are the statistical facts not skewed assumptions: Fornette actually only faced two Top 20 defenses (despite assumptions he faced great defense every week) last year: 105.5 yards/gm, 4.2 yds/carry which isn’t bad at all ………BUT Cook faced Four Top 20 defenses: 148.5 yards/gm, 7 yds/carry including one common opponent (Florida) where Cook ran for 183 yds on 26 carries out doing Fornette’s 180 yds on 31 carries….all this on one leg with a terrible offensive line for Cook. Those are the facts actually.

        • ripov
          • Environmental Advantage

            Clearly not knowing the difference between total season stats (which you linked) versus specific stats against Top 20 defenses….reading is fundamental.

          • Environmental Advantage

            Let me help you…look Top NCAA total defenses in 2015….THEN find each players stats vs those listed Top 20 defenses…I know it’s advanced….

          • Kenny Wilson

            wouldnt team total defense be irrelevant, considering they’re running backs? I would think it would be more accurate to compare teams faced that were top 20 in run defense. Plus comparing Top 20 D’s faced is silly too bc LSU couldve faced the #1 and #2 D while FSU faced the #’s 17, 18, 19, and 20. It might be completely irrelevant, and is cherry picking at best.

          • Environmental Advantage

            1. Uhhh to answer the first question NO…statistical total team defensive rankings are actually very relevant to the conversation involving the phrase “pitiful acc defenses”…..2. LSU COULD have faced the #1 and #2 defenses; but since we don’t have to generalize and can actually look up the facts before we reply (which you didn’t), the fact is they didn’t face the #1 and #2 total defenses…..3. When looking at Top 20 Rushing defenses (which you should have done b4 replying)…..FSU still faced 4 to LSU’s 2……

            Sooo what is most irrelevant here is your unsubstantiated reply……

    • Royce Tasker

      Really? Cook had too many plays to count where he ran untouched down the field because of that “bad” offense line. Fournette had almost no threat of a passing game as well. Oh, and Cook’s gift on here illustrates exactly what I commented about. I bet Cook lead the nation in yards before contact, or he was at least top 3.

      • Beaugard Simpson

        His O-line was terrible, and did you see the Golson and Maguire? Basically the name of the game was load up the box and stop Cook. The cool thing about Cook is that when he got the LOS he was money,

        “Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Cook’s game, however, is that he’s done it behind a shaky offensive line. Cook has been stopped behind the line of scrimmage about 70 percent more often than Fournette this year, yet he’s averaged 1.14 more yards per rush. If Cook crosses the line of scrimmage, he’s unstoppable, averaging 11.01 yards per carry — 24 percent better than any other Power 5 back (minimum 100 carries).” – David Hale of ESPN

        the problem is he got hit in the back field a lot. I will say this as a FSU homer, I still think that Fournette is better overall back. I think he will be a better pro.

        • Royce Tasker

          Ok let’s use common sense for both guys. If Fournette lead the nation in broken tackles/yards after contact and rushing yards per game. While, Cook lead the nation in yards before contact/20 yards or more run plays. It would be easy to figure out that they both had good to great run blocking teams. Neither teams may have had world beating passing games, but FSU’s passing game was more of a treat. This caused safeties to play out of the box against FSU more than teams did against LSU. Oh, and since when did Cook become a power back?

  • Environmental Advantage

    I agree that Fornette is the better pro-RB prospect because of his carrying load, power, and size however I think the article supports the idea poorly by using way to skewed metrics as all data is though. #1 Fornette breaks more tackles because he is that much more less elusive than Cook; Fornette tries to barrel people over where as Davin just breaks their ankles instead….you have to be able to touch a guy before he can break your tackle. #2 Yes, Fornette had one game canceled, but Dalvin missed 2.5 games because of injury…..where would his numbers be? #3 Fornette and McCaffrey will lead at the end because they will simply get more touches period. FSU has many other options they often go to far more than LSU or Stanford. Davin will probably touch the ball even less this year with other athletes returning kicks and talented receivers even older. And b4 someone attempts to call ACC defenses soft, check your team defensive stats and defensive draft numbers over the last 5 years before your ignorance rears its head….

    • ripov

      your reasoning is about as bogus as your stats are.

      • Environmental Advantage

        100s of articles exists that support my facts and notice how you are the only uninformed no football minded IMO disputing them…..think about it. Some things are far too advanced for those who never actually played the sport to understand. And I won’t send you links…go find it for yourself. BUT you can’t because you don’t know how statisticians even derive with our stats.

        • ripov

          im sure PFF will be calling to apologize and bow to your oh so wise football knowledge and hit you up for a job very soon.
          2nd team all state safety here (and d1 track). you?

          • ripov

            in my experience, its usually the team manager sitting on the sidelines with a clipboard keeping the stats.

          • Environmental Advantage

            LMBO…..And again, Have you followed my MATHEMATICAL instructions Mr. Irrelevant Links?

          • ripov

            team manager doesnt count as playing you know. im sure you kept stats on your clipboard with great skill though. well done.

      • Melissa Manasco

        Um. You misspelled BOTH their names. Your own ignorance just reared it’s ugly head :)

      • Melissa Manasco

        Didn’t mean for that comment to go to you. Sorry :(

        • Environmental Advantage

          The ignorance go around I see….lol

    • Environmental Advantage

      100s of articles exists that support my facts and notice how you are the only uninformed no football minded IMO disputing them…..think about it. Some things are far too advanced for those who never actually played the sport to understand. And I won’t send you links…go find it for yourself.

    • Melissa Manasco

      You misspelled BOTH their names. Apparently your own ignorance just reared it’s ugly head :)

  • http://www.michaeltoebe.com Michael

    They are both great, explosive, exciting backs. No need to determine which one is “better.” You can win with either.

  • Phil

    Cook: 253 plays from scrimmage for 1935 Yards 20 TD (7.6 Yards per play)
    Fournette: 319 plays from scrimmage for 2206 Yards 23 TD (6.9 Yards per play)
    Whos better again???

    • Shane

      Don’t want to start that ole’ worn out debate about the SEC conference schedule level of difficuly, but… Florida, Bama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Miss. St. Arkansas, A&M….

      • j.r simmons

        A&M, Arkansas, Auburn and Miss St are not strong teams though…

        • Beaugard Simpson

          This is so true. Florida as well recently, but they have had some plus defenses for sure.

        • Ramal Snevets

          These are not strong teams unless they are on your schedule. If FSU had to play just one of those teams it would be mentioned how tough there schedule is or how dangerous that game is… Having to play all of them every year is like begging to get upset. Well out of conference it seems like an upset but within the SEC it is not surprising at all to lose to either of the teams mentioned

          • Hank Larison

            Check a few years ago. Played Auburn. Playing Ole Miss this year Alabama next. We are not scared.

          • Hank Larison

            Forgot to mention Florida every year.

          • Hank Larison

            And let’s not forget what Miami Virginia Tech Are capable of. Then you have FSU Clemson and Louisville. Louisville is the team I fear most.

          • Ramal Snevets

            And beat Auburn and it was a great game. FSU could beat any SEC team, but trust me… in the SEC West an Arkansas late in the season is Dangerous… Ole Miss can beat anyone, Miss St is the bottom of the group and they were a top ten team a couple years ago… Alabama makes it look not so difficult because 70% of their team plans on going pro… Teams like Bama Ohio State and FSU can run the table every year with their talent, but if you are locked in a group with LSU, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas, Miss. State, and the SEC championship only losing once is astonishing. lol

      • Hank Larison

        Then dont

        • Hank Larison

          As soon as the legend retires in Alabama it will be back to being a normal league.

    • j.r simmons

      If you give Cook 66 more touches he will likely equal or surpass Fournette’s numbers

  • Shane

    PFF… your “their new-look defense” link leads to “Oregon’s Royce Freeman” write up.

  • Ramal Snevets

    If you want to do a compare and contrast its more complicated than looking at what each player did on there two different teams. All you can do is speculate how they would have faired in each other’s shoes. Place Dalvin Cook in an LSU offense against Alabama with an inept passing game and you will see him struggle. Place Leonard Fournette on and FSU team with an aggressive downfield passing attack against Clemson and you would see him shine and lose to Deshaun Watson. If they were on the same team who would I start… I really can’t come up with a good reason to pick one over the other besides a bias. Dalvin is very good. he’s just on the wrong team for me. maybe its because we are all asking an irrelevant question… Would FSU beat LSU if they played next season??? Nope Geaux Tigers

    • dsklr

      “an FSU team with an aggressive downfield passing attack”… I guess you pretty much have to be an LSU fan to think FSU’s 2015 passing attack was anything special (or to feel the need to note that it’s a *downfield* passing attack). when you’re pointing out LSU’s inept passing game, take a closer look at that FSU-clemson game and note that our starting QB had a 31.7 passer rating, while dalvin posted 192 yards as our only offense (against a clemson defense that, as we saw in the nat’l championship, really wasn’t lightyears below bama’s). place dalvin in that LSU offense and he’s still awesome. and if, unlike 2015, he’s playing on two good legs.. watch out.

      • Daddy Says

        Fournett’s good no doubt about it, but Cook is special. I’ve only seen a few running backs with break-away speed and three gears and Cook has it.

        • dsklr

          agree 100%. and it’s not just the speed. it’s hard for me to come up with a better natural runner, with a better feel for the position, in recent memory. todd gurley blows me away with his vision and patience, but honestly watching dalvin, he is at least on the same level (vision-wise. not going to pretend any other RB is the same caliber of athlete as gurley).

          • Ramal Snevets

            I would pick Dalvin Over Gurley for the acceleration… Dalvin’s 0-60 Impressive considering the power he’s carrying with him. get to Gurley b4 he gets momentum and you’re in good shape. Gurley was and is a textbook downhill runner(one of the best). vision-patience-power… Dalvin to me is like a muscle car explosive-powerful-forward thinking(reacts quick and knows what to do next)… to me Leonard is explosive-powerful… damn you know Leonard does lack that third attribute he’s not very creative… his vision is just ok… he doesn’t really have any moves. he’s just explosive and very powerful. you could say he’s violent but that’s not always ideal. it sure does leave secondary defenders helpless.

          • Nick Cortez

            Spin move, truck stick, stiff arm…I can go on. He doesn’t have a great “juke” move, but it is serviceable against worse athletes. He has the same top end speed as Cook as well.

      • Ramal Snevets

        you know I respect that answer. I don’t have any bearing on FSU passing game. might be similar to LSU’s… thoroughbreds on the outsides and a god awful mess trying to get them the ball… Dalvin would be AMAZING at LSU… Clemson has a complete offense with a real weapon at QB… that’s how you compete with Bama… we have been dealing with a liability at QB for the past 2 yrs… its holding the whole offense back… LF7 particularly

        • dsklr

          yeah, never understood how you guys manage to land the ODBs, landrys, and malachi duprees with that decade-long QB mess. dalvin really was our entire offense last year- travis rudolph was pretty good at WR, but that’s not going to make up for the loss of jameis, KB, and rashad greene in the span of two years. luckily we only have to wonder how dalvin would do against a premier SEC west d-line until sept. 5th, FSU-ole miss. get ya popcorn ready!!

        • Hank Larison

          Don’t get it twisted FSU’s passing game is always better than LSU’s. Ask your Athletic Director.

    • Hank Larison

      Talk about homer. Watch each and every Cook game before you present your ridiculous thesis. Cook is a smaller quicker back. Fournette is a big fast back. They would both do well in each teams offense. They are both studs.

      • Ramal Snevets

        yes they are both studs, and they both can’t block for themselves and if they were both wearing purple and gold last Nov. 5th Bama’s Dline would own my beloved tiger Oline and he would gain 30 yds becz LES MILES or CAM CAMERON and BRANDON HARRIS would fail to put together anything resembling a passing game. An he would not win the Heisman anyway. what the hell is a “Homer” anyway?? your comment halfway sounded like you agreed with me so I a tad confused.

      • Ramal Snevets

        I didn’t say Dalvin was a bad back. I was pointing out that the reason for picking one over the other is either bias or skill set preference. people always say Dalvin had more yards per carry… I’m sorry, but that doesn’t mean much to me if he’s not in the SEC west with a coach like Les Miles

  • Ramal Snevets

    What you can say based on the stats is that Leonard Fournette had a better statistical season only because Dalvin Cook missed 2.5 games and pulled a hammy… If Cook was healthy he would have had more yards, however that is relative because the carries you don’t take don’t reduce you yards per carry average.

    • Nick Cortez

      Fornette didn’t get to have his cupcake game, either…LSU had a game cancelled due to weather vs a 1-AA (FCS) team.

  • Ramal Snevets

    So are we to agree that ACC defenses are equal to SEC West Defenses?? For instance Miami or UNC’s Defense is equal to Ole Miss’s or Florida’s… I do expect and respect the Bama defense to Clemson Defense comparison, although I’d say FSU’s defense is a better match…

  • Ramal Snevets

    But hey FSU and Dalvin Cook have the perfect chance to shut this talk down in their first game of the season against Ole Miss. Oughta be agreat watch man I can’t wait…

    • Shea

      Considering the information used above was over the course of an entire season I fail to see how one game will “shut this talk down”. But hey, you must be a homer and will see what you want.

      • Ramal Snevets

        I see what you’re getting at here, but I wasn’t referring to the LF#7 > DC#4 talk… I was talking about SEC Defense > ACC Defense… Which I believe is the truth… Especially when you are Leonard Fournette and you are always facing 8 or 9 in the box and everyone and their blind grandmother knows you are going to run.

  • HTTRer

    For netted didn’t have a negative grade vs. Alabama?

    • Nick Cortez

      No, but his offensive line definitely did

  • HTTRer

    Stupid spell check, Fornette.

  • Hank Larison

    And we recruited Fournette. Hence the homer in me has come out.

    • Ramal Snevets

      LSU would be nothing if other schools could come in and sway our best high school talent. which is the biggest reason I hate bama… They can do just that. -_-)

  • Ramal Snevets

    oh ok… see you caught me being lazy cause I would have also said Cook would kick Auburn’s and plenty of those other team’s asses… just Bama against our stubborn coach was a perfect storm for any running back to look bad.