Saquon Barkley needs no introduction, but just in case you have been living in a cave, he is the latest acquisition at the running back position for the New York Giants, having selected him with the second pick of the draft.
He was one of the (if not the) hottest prospects in the entire 2018 class, and without a doubt he was the most ‘talked-about’ player that isn’t a quarterback.
Barkley is an explosive, lightning fast, halfback out of Penn State, who is not only terrifying in space as a ball carrier, but also a receiving mismatch and slot-demon.
For Penn State, he had some immense performances, (if you want to watch one, I recommend his game against Iowa) and he has put together quite the highlight reel. If you put against slow, run-stuffing Linebackers he ate them for breakfast. However – slow Linebackers are not common in the NFL.
Saquon won’t have it easy when he makes the move to New York. No team will make him look good like Iowa did, especially a team with a balanced defense. However, I think that he is more than just a speedster to catch inside backers off guard – much more than that.
Penn State’s number 26 showcased some of the biggest home run potential I’ve seen in a college player. He can break free on any play and suddenly negotiate acres of space down the sideline, or straight through the middle of the field. This isn’t just because of good blocking either, Barkley excels at making people miss. He has LeSean McCoy-esque footwork, and miraculous balance, allowing him to change direction faster than any defender. This can cause for some jaw dropping plays, when he breaks out one of his two signature moves.
His go-to move is the long stride and then a quick cut the opposite way. He’ll accentuate one big driving step, and then burst off it in the other direction, breaking ankles consistently when running towards a defender face-on. His second notable move is my favourite, he can sink unnaturally low into his hips, then he leaps out of his coiled position like a spring, and can absolutely devastate defenders, from almost a standstill.
He will go from practically accepting the tackle to breaking off down the sideline within one jump-cut. The best visual example of this also came in his match-up against Iowa. His agility, when combined with 4.4 speed, causes him to be all-but impossible to catch once he’s past you.
Making people miss is important when moving up into the league, because people don’t make mistakes if you don’t force them to. There are some other things that are very important for a running back in the NFL, which are what separate a good running back from one that every team (except Cleveland, evidently) wants. Pass blocking, and pass catching. It’s a passing league, after all. Saquon Barkley made real improvements in blocking in his final year in college. He had been criticised in the past for not being proactive enough, and sometimes he would find himself too close to the quarterback, where even a successful block will still cause his signal-caller problems.
However, this year he seemed more aggressive, and his blocking will only continue to improve when the Giants get a hold of him for the remainder of the offseason. His use down the field is also going to be incredibly useful moving into the NFL. Barkley is a proficient pass-catcher, and a very good route runner, especially on routes with harsh cuts. Barkley can be used for all of the Le’Veon Bell routes which kill man defense, the 5-yard ins and outs from up past the guard can be brutal, and Barkley’s quick feet and safe hands can beat zone as well if the ball is there. Eli Manning struggled last year when he lacked targets through the air, but now this team is starting to look a lot more dangerous.
The return of Odell Beckham Jr. is an obvious boost to the productivity of the offense, and Evan Engram looked like a player who will scare teams for years to come, as one of the most athletic receiving tight ends in the game. And now they’re adding Saquon Barkley, yet another explosive player, who can defeat you in one play.
The Giants are looking to turn into a team loosely representing the 2017 Kansas City Chiefs, where a touchdown is entirely possible from an position on the field. The biggest question mark is undoubtedly Eli Manning. The veteran will, once again, be the captain of the ship. It remains to be seen if this will be good or bad for Barkley’s production, (it should do wonders for his fantasy value!) but that won’t matter for long.
There was a specific point in time when Saquon was elevated from featuring in conversations as the best running back in the draft to the best tailback prospect in years, and that was the NFL Combine. Barkley absolutely decimated the drills. He recorded a rapid 4.4 forty and had an impressive showing on the vertical jump (41.0 inches), as well as a respectable 20-yard shuttle (4.24). The thing, however, which caught many people’s eye is that he also topped the rankings for bench press amongst all skill positions, (29 – tied with Nick Chubb). His overall performance, showcasing his surprising strength, as well as the well-documented speed, got everybody talking.
Barkley is strong, and he runs hard; but one criticism I have of him is that he doesn’t often finish plays the way you might hope that an NFL running back would. Recent rookie stars such as Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette made their name on bad plays. Bad plays, which should have been worse. Turning a tackle for loss into a positive carry is arguably the most valuable thing that anyone can do, especially when you are an every-down-back. It’s not all about the 50-yard touchdowns, it’s the 3-yard first downs.
Every coach will agree. The cause for my frustration is that we know for a fact he can do it. Saquon Barkley’s highlight reel from college should be rated-18… we all know that he can do unspeakable things to a defense at any moment – and this sometimes includes breaking tackles and wriggling out of the arms of a defender, sometimes. In the NFL, it isn’t about being able to occasionally break free from a tackle, though – it’s about consistently making your opponent work for every tackle.
Barkley almost never invites contact. There’s nothing wrong with being smart, but there is a lot right about being aggressive. It isn’t that I want to see him trucking safeties like Marshawn Lynch, but I want to see him lower his shoulder when he’s got a one-on-one in the secondary, instead of skipping to the sideline and returning to the huddle, (this opinion may differ if I was paying for his contract).
The other downside to his game is inextricably linked to the former; he always seems to opt for the hero play. Now, don’t get me wrong… Barkley is more than capable of producing these incredible plays, but sometimes he sacrifices a concrete 4-yard run between the tackles, to try and conjure up a magical ankle-breaking double move to the outside.
It is frustrating to watch. Earlier I described the plays on which Zeke and Fournette earn their wages: the tough, gritty, between-the-tackle runs, for a few yards. These are the exact same plays which appear to elude Barkley. If he learns to truly utilise his strength, as a ball carrier, instead of solely relying on his elusiveness (which will still come in handy when he makes it outside) he will immediately elevate his upside as an every-down option.
As a whole, the Giants have picked up one of the most talented rookies to enter the NFL since their own OBJ, and the upside in this selection is unquestionable – this kid could be headed to Canton, he truly is a (I apologise if you have already heard this 1,000 times this month) ‘generational talent’.
Comparisons to Ladanian Tomlinson and Lesean ‘Shady’ McCoy are deserved, and genuinely accurate, which alone makes him a perfect prospect to inject into any team, but I think that he will succeed even more in New York than he would have in most other set ups. He will take the pressure off of Eli by allowing for a stronger run game, he will make play action much more threatening, and he will get involved in the passing game on any route, either from the backfield or spread out wide.
It will be really exciting to see how Saquon does behind the newly improved offensive line and I will be keen to watch their new scheme for the 2018 season. And, with Manning closing in on retirement, it can’t have hurt Dave Gettleman to see his first round pick throw a passing touchdown against Indiana.
The only negative regarding taking him with the second pick is that he isn’t a quarterback (the Giants may have to make some trades this time next year to go and get one before it’s too late). However, this truly shows how talented he really is, as he was taken over multiple franchise-worthy QB options (and Josh Allen).
I can’t wait to watch him play, especially if he gets a little bit more aggressive between the tackles and I can’t wait to draft him in fantasy.
Draft pick grade: A