Saquon Barkley Is the Best Running Back in the NFL

Before the season started, it was announced that Saquon Barkley had the highest selling jersey in the NFL. Before he had stepped on a professional football field. The hype for Barkley coming out of college was unprecedented. The shocking thing is that he actually lived up to the astronomical expectations.

How?

The Draft

After completing his collegiate career at Penn State, Barkley declared his intentions to enter the 2018 NFL Draft. In his latter two seasons playing for the Nittany Lions, he recorded 46 total touchdowns. Naturally, Barkley was surrounded by an extreme amount of hype heading into the pros. However, after a stellar performance at the NFL Combine, the hype reached new levels. Barkley ran the 40-yard dash in 4.40 seconds and bench pressed 225 pounds for 29 reps, the most for a running back. His draft stock skyrocketed, as Barkley went from being a projected top-10 pick to a projected top-3 pick. Even the Cleveland Browns were reportedly interested in drafting Barkley with the first overall pick in the draft.

The only running back with comparable excitement coming out of college was Adrian Peterson in 2007. Peterson fell to the seventh pick due to injury concerns but he lived up to the hype by winning NFL Most Valuable Player honors in 2012. A running back has won the award just thrice in the past eighteen years and it hasn’t been done since AP pulled off the feat. Being named in the same sentence as a legend like Peterson is high praise in itself for Barkley.

There was no shortage of analysts and scouts who recognized that Barkley was a generational talent. Mel Kiper Jr., who doesn’t typically believe in running backs being picked in the first round, said “Barkley is a once in a lifetime talent, teams that pass on this young man will be sorry.” An anonymous scout said, “I would punch myself in the nuts many, many, many times to be able to draft him.”

Barkley’s diverse range of abilities certainly contributed to these thoughts. It is very rare for a running back to have his combination of elite speed, strength, receiving ability and pass protection skills. Adrian Peterson is an all-time great, but it was well known that he was a less than mediocre receiver out of the backfield. It was no surprise that Barkley went into the draft with lofty projections.

After drafting Barkley with the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman naturally had plenty of kind words for the future of the franchise. “The thing that makes him different is he has the feet and speed of a little guy, with the power and strength of a big guy,” Gettleman said. “That’s what makes him so darn unique. He’s different. It’s like he was touched by the hand of God, frankly.”

Touched by the hand of God. It’s a bit much for a player who hasn’t played a single snap of professional football yet, right?

Apparently, the praise was appropriate.

The NFL

The Giants were very happy with their selection, but many outsiders were extremely critical of the decision. Barkley is as good of a prospect you’ll find at running back, but there’s a reason he was the highest drafted at the position since 2006 (Reggie Bush, Saints). Running backs have the shortest careers of any position and they are very reliant on their offensive line and the quarterback’s ability to make defenses respect the passing game. No running back, let alone a rookie, can be great with a mediocre offensive line and an aging quarterback. At least that’s what we thought.

 Percent of Rushes with 8+ Defenders in the BoxTeam's Run Blocking Rank (DVOA)Yards Per Carry
Saquon Barkley22.01%245.4
Todd Gurley3.59%14.9
Ezekiel Elliott26.12%94.7
Phillip Lindsay13.1%45.8
Christian McCaffrey18.99%85.2

These are the NFL’s 5 leading rushers so far this year. No other top running back has produced like Barkley has with without a top 10 run blocking offensive line. Only Elliott faces defenses that stack the box as often as Barkley, but the Cowboys’ 9th ranked offensive line alleviates pressure off of him. Of course, all of these players are still elite running backs. They’re just put into better positions to succeed than Barkley is.

Rushing

Barkley’s combination of elite acceleration and power makes him a nightmare for would-be tacklers.

 

On this inside run against Houston, Barkley actually stops completely to allow a hole to develop. He’s able to do this because of the incredibly short amount of time it takes for him to reach his top speed. After he sees the hole, Barkley is able to hit it extremely quickly. You can spot Tyrann Matthieu (#32, All-Pro safety) jump to the outside right of the offensive line in an attempt to seal the edge. With Matthieu falling for the hesitation fake, the only man left to beat is Kareem Jackson (#25, defensive back).

It was obviously a bad play by Matthieu, but Saquon’s ability to bounce to the outside must also be respected. It’s a conundrum for opposing defenders and puts great players like Matthieu into tough situations.

 

Barkley is able to make a sharp jump cut to the right side as he breaks three tackles before reaching the sideline. Barkley is unstoppable in open space and his vision along with his elusiveness makes it so easy for him to put himself into favorable positions. Once he makes it to the outside, it’s over. Sterling Shepard provides a great block which leaves Barkley with just one man to beat. There’s no question who’s going to come out on top in a one-on-one against Saquon Barkley.

 

This wasn’t a designed misdirection. The Buccaneers front seven blew up the play and forced what should have been a loss of 4 yards. Instead, Barkley refuses to go down and is able to see the wide-open lane on the left side of the field. Instead of losing yards, the Giants gain about 10 and the first down.

 

On this play, Barkley showcases his power and determination to gain tough, extra yards. He breaks 3 tackles here and makes it look effortless. As Cris Collinsworth said, it might be the best 9-yard run you’ll ever see.

 

This play is just quintessential Saquon Barkley. It exemplifies everything that makes him an elite runner. The vision to see the hole on the right side of the field. The agility to make the jump cut. The acceleration to hit the outside after the move. The elusiveness to break the tackle attempt from Telvin Smith (#50, Pro Bowl linebacker). The balance to stay on his feet. The power to finish strong against Jalen Ramsey (#20, All-Pro cornerback). There is nothing you want in a running back that Barkley lacks.

Receiving

Any quarterback can attest to the fact that having a running back serve as a reliable receiving target out of the backfield is a priceless luxury. Barkley has been exactly that for Eli Manning and will continue to be a threat in the passing game for the Giants’ future quarterback.

 

The Giants line Barkley up as an outside receiver on this play. He’s a mismatch against Zach Cunningham (#41, linebacker). Barkley has the release of a wide receiver which gives him plenty of space on the outside, where he is able to rise and attack the ball.

 

Eli Manning recognizes the blitz so he has to get the throw off quickly. It’s clear that he trusts Barkley, as he should when he’s being guarded by Preston Smith (#94, defensive end). Barkley adjusts perfectly to catch the pass which is placed beautifully by Manning.

 

This was a great play design. Bennie Fowler (#18, wide receiver) runs a slant to draw the corner away from Barkley, giving him room for Eli to throw a quick strike to him before the linebacker can react. Barkley extends for the ball and makes a ridiculous one-handed catch. A running back shouldn’t be able to do that.

Conclusion

The Giants as a whole have played far better recently. Although their offensive line rating was previously mentioned, it doesn’t tell the whole story. In recent weeks, the unit has played exceptionally. Over the past two games, against two of the NFL’s best run defenses (Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins), Barkley has rushed for 295 yards on 38 carries — a 7.8 yards per carry average. The Giants do need to find a quarterback for the future. Many people exaggerate Eli Manning’s struggles, but it’s undeniable that he doesn’t have much left in the tank as he’ll turn 38 in a few weeks.

Saquon Barkley’s impact is clear even outside of his generational talent on the field. Barkley also exhibits great leadership skills. Against the Redskins, Barkley had an early first quarter drop which led to a punt. When asked about the play, Barkley said, “I went to the line, the quarterback and the wide receivers and said that series is on me, I’m going to make up for it. I promise you guys.”

He went on to put up over 150 yards — in the second quarter.

The future of the New York Giants is unclear, but there is no questioning the transcendental ability of Saquon Barkley.

Image Source: Brad Penner / USA Today Sports