The Fantasy Case Against Saquon Barkley: When Durability Trumps Ability

Knee and ankle injuries have derailed Saquon Barkley's young career and Michael Fabiano dissects how to weigh those durability concerns
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The summer is here, meaning we're getting closer to the start of fantasy football drafts. Success in those drafts will come from landing terrific bargains in the middle to late rounds while avoiding players who could see their numbers decline compared to 2020. However, that latter exercise isn't easy, especially in the case of players who are among the elite at their position or are coming off breakout seasons in the stat sheets.

Case in point: In 2018, James Conner emerged into a fantasy superstar as the new lead running back in Pittsburgh. He finished sixth in fantasy points at the position even though he missed three games. That success, plus his versatile skill set, made him a first-round pick in most 2019 redrafts. Fantasy folks just trusted that because Conner was so good in his breakout year, he’d be just as good or better the following year. Unfortunately, those of you who sunk a first-rounder on him found out differently.

Conner missed six games in 2019, and his average stats per game went downhill. His yards per carry average dropped from 4.5 to 4.0, and his fantasy points per game average went from 21.5 to 14.6. The Pitt product finished a very disappointing RB35.

The Fantasy Case Against ...

The point here is that few folks saw this coming because Conner was so good in 2018. That leads me to this series, aptly named “The Fantasy Case Against …” where I’ll do my due diligence in looking at players who everyone in fantasy land seems to think is a sure bet to remain uber-productive after finding a high level of success in past seasons.

I’ve examined Derrick Henry and Alvin Kamara, so now, let's look at Saquon Barkley.

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) is helped off of the field after suffering an injury during the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

2020 Season

Barkley played in fewer than two games last season before suffering a torn ACL in his right knee. He also experienced damage to his MCL and meniscus. He finished with 25 touches and averaged 1.8 yards a rush and was also targeted nine times (six catches).

Did You Know?

Barkley has missed a combined 17 games over the last two seasons. In the games he was active (15), he averaged 17.3 fantasy points. That would rank him eighth at the position among running backs who have played in at least 14 games. That average would also have been good enough to finish tied with Nick Chubb for ninth-best on a points-per-game basis last season. In his one-plus games in 2020 before suffering the torn ACL, Barkley had just 34 rushing yards on 19 carries and averaged 7.7 points.

Historical Trends

The act of looking back at historical trends when it comes to running backs coming off reconstructive knee surgery is somewhat flawed, as medical technology has improved so much in the last decade-plus. Still, breaking down what some elite backs have done in their first year after an ACL procedure could shed some light on what lies ahead for Barkley and his fantasy managers. You will notice a trend with some of these players.

Since 2000, several elite backs have endured major knee reconstruction. Edgerrin James blew out his knee six games into the 2001 season. He did come back to play 14 games the following year, but his production took a nosedive, and he finished as the RB19. James had finished as the RB2 in fantasy in each of his previous two years.

Jamal Lewis is a unique case because he suffered his right ACL tear before the 2001 season and missed the entire year. The fact that he was injured so early was a huge advantage for the bruising back, who also tore up his left knee in college (1998). Lewis made a successful return in 2002 with 1,327 yards on the ground and seven total touchdowns. He finished as the RB15 and went on to rush for 2,066 yards in 2003.

The first ACL tear of Deuce McAllister's pro career came in 2005 when he went down after five games. He returned to play 15 games the following season and played well, rushing for 1,057 yards and 10 touchdowns. McAllister finished the year as the RB15. He suffered another torn ACL in 2007, and his career would end the following year.

Ronnie Brown was the best running back in fantasy football in 2007 until he blew out his knee in the seventh game. His projected scrimmage yardage totals would have been the 11th-most ever in NFL history at the time, so his was a major loss. While Brown did play in a full 16 games the following season, his stats paled in comparison to his projected 2007 totals. He also averaged close to one full yard fewer per attempt.

Moving ahead to 2011, four prominent fantasy running backs went down with ACL tears, including the likes of Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Knowshon Moreno, and Rashard Mendenhall. The results the following year were mixed. Peterson, proving he's not human, rushed for 2,097 yards and was the top runner in fantasy land despite his late-season ACL tear. Charles scored just six total touchdowns, but his yardage totals were good enough to help him finish ninth in fantasy points post-ACL.

The news wasn’t as good for Moreno and Mendenhall, however. Moreno played in just six games the following season, and Mendenhall was sidelined for all but six contests.

We haven’t seen a prominent fantasy runner go down with an ACL lately, with Barkley being the most recent example. Tarik Cohen also suffered an ACL ailment, but he isn’t on the same level in fantasy football. The more recent results from Peterson and Charles are promising, though you have to wonder if the Giants will unleash Barkley out of the gate or possibly ease him back into the offense at a slower than normal rate.

Coaching Changes

Jason Garrett was hired as the offensive coordinator for the Giants last season. In 14 years as an OC or head coach, he has produced a combined 10 top-24 running backs, including six ranked as the RB8 or better. He's had the advantage of having studs like Ezekiel Elliott, DeMarco Murray, Marion Barber, and Barkley (two games) in his arsenals. It’s a super small sample size, but Barkley averaged just 1.8 yards per carry (19 carries) under Garrett in 2020. He was targeted nine times as a pass-catcher.

Head coach Joe Judge hasn’t offered a concrete timeline for Barkley’s return, so he’s a candidate to see his snap counts limited during the early portion of the regular season. That scenario, of course, is something fantasy managers should remember in drafts.

Verdict

Barkley is one of the most talented playmakers at his position, and at 24, he's just now getting into the prime of his career. For those reasons and the breakout campaign he had as a rookie, Barkley will be a first-round pick in redrafts. He does come with risk, as he's seen action in a mere 15 games (47 percent) in the last two years due to both ankle and knee ailments. I wouldn't call Barkley brittle, but he's not been durable.

Fantasy managers should also temper expectations for the talented Giants runner. His rookie season, which included 121 targets, 91 catches, and more than 2,000 scrimmage yards, will likely be his best at the NFL level. The Giants gave Barkley 352 touches in his first season, and he'll be hard-pressed to reach that total if he's brought back slowly.

He was also catching passes from Eli Manning, who ranked fourth among quarterbacks with at least 12 starts in pass percentage (26) to running backs in 2018. In his first two years, Daniel Jones threw to his running backs 16.5 percent of the time. That includes 13 games as a rookie where Jones threw to his runners 16.1 percent of the time.

Fantasy fans should also keep in mind that the Giants will bring back Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, and Evan Engram, and the additions of Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, and Kyle Rudolph leave the team with a lot of offensive mouths to feed on offense. Yes, Barkley did have Odell Beckham Jr., Shepard, and Engram to contend with as a rookie, but OBJ missed four games, and Engram was out for five. New York's third wideout that season was a combination of Bennie Fowler, Corey Coleman, and Russell Shepard.

The 2021 G-Men have a far more loaded offense, meaning fewer targets for Barkley.

Now let’s look at Barkley in 2019. He played 13 games that season and was effective overall but still saw declines in yards per rush average, total touchdowns, catches, and scrimmage yards. He did average 18.8 fantasy points a game, however, which ranked eighth among runners. To expect him to be better, coming off ACL, MCL, and meniscus injuries, could be asking too much. As we’ve seen from past runners, coming back from such a procedure can be a somewhat difficult task (unless you’re Adrian Peterson).

The Giants also have some questions surrounding their offensive line that could negatively impact Barkley. In fact, our friends over at PFF have this line ranked dead last in the league heading into 2021. Still, Barkley is the fifth running back coming off the board based on ADP data from the Fantasy Football World Championships. So, the high-stakes folks are still betting on Barkley being a top-five runner after the ACL.

I’d suggest that even if Barkley finishes RB10 this season, he’d still be a disappointment based on his ADP. Yet, the lure of his talent and a rookie season for the ages will be too great a temptation to pass on in the first round. If it were me, knowing he’s missed so much time in the last two seasons and is coming off a major knee reconstruction, I might err on the side of caution and grab Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry (also comes with risk), or even Nick Chubb ahead of Barkley if I’m staring at a top-eight overall selection.

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Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!