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  • Better than Ezekiel Elliott? Evaluators around the NFL think so. The Penn State running back is emerging as a generational talent and is being viewed as a true franchise player as the league goes back to the future with power-running offenses
By Albert Breer
September 26, 2017

The Titans, built sturdy and tough up front, rushed for 195 yards on the vaunted Seahawks defense on Sunday. The Ravens spent the last two offseason getting younger and quicker on defense, and that group kept the Bengals and Browns out of the end zone in Weeks 1 and 2. Then in London, a Jaguars offense reworked this offseason with size in mind ran for 166 yards on them.

This is how the NFL works. Teams spent the last decade building around quarterbacks and receivers, and defenses are now stocked with 220-pound linebackers and 250-pound pass rushers. And now we’re getting the zig to that zag—personnel czars like Jacksonville’s Tom Coughlin and Tennessee’s Jon Robinson capitalized by building jackhammer offenses to run at those defenses, while creating better environments for their young QBs.

“That’s been going on since the 1970s,” said one NFC personnel exec. “It’s not a new trend, it’s the same cycle. New people rise in the football world, history repeats itself.”

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Enter Saquon Barkley. In the four drafts between 2011 and ’14, only one running back, Alabama’s Trent Richardson, went in the top half of the first round. In the last three drafts, five tailbacks—Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey—have gone within the top 16 picks. And Barkley might be better than any of them.

Moreover, he’s coming along at the right time. Teams are considering retro looks offensively, which can prop up young quarterbacks, help the defense, and exploit opponents built to combat high-end passing attacks. So where the value of running backs may have recently declined, it seems now demand for a 230-pound, three-down, 21st-century style bellcow, a la Elliott or Joe Mixon, is on the rise.

“You can build an offense around him,” said one AFC exec of Barkley. “He’s so f---ing good. Zeke is solid in all areas. Fournette is a special athlete for the position. This kid? He’s way better than both of them . . . He’s a step above Zeke in all categories, and has much better hands and feet and vision than Fournette does. He’s special. I haven’t seen a better college football player.”

“When I first saw Zeke, it was his explosion from the line to the second level that was rare, and Saquon’s is probably a little better,” said another NFC personnel director. “There’s something different about this guy, he has rare things about him—his explosion, his balance, his vision, his ability to cut laterally. Someone hits him and he lands on his feet. And he’s tougher than s---. He steps up in pass protection.”

What we all saw on Saturday, in a game that Penn State seemed to be in the process of blowing at Iowa, was the virtual trailer to what Barkley could be at the next level. He ripped through the Hawkeyes defense for 211 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries, and caught 12 balls for 94 yards, and returned for three kicks for 53 yards. His fourth-quarter hurdle of Iowa corner Josh Jackson to convert a third-and-6 was a moment you’ll see replayed a ton in March and April. There wasn’t a moment when there was any doubt who the best player on the field was.

So there’s a better than good chance that there will an NFL offense built around the true junior at this time next year, the same way Elliott had an offense built around him as a rookie last year. That Barkley could be better than the league’s reigning rushing champion makes this one even more interesting. And how a retro-minded team might view him as a true centerpiece adds another layer.

“If you look you at it from our perspective, the ideal back today has to be able to do everything,” said an AFC college scouting director. “There’s not great value in the first- and second-down back anymore, or a guy who’s just a third-down scatback. You want a guy who does everything. And that’s Zeke, it’s Mixon, and it’s Saquon Barkley.”

The last time a running back went first overall was in 1995, and it was another Penn State Nittany Lion: Ki-Jana Carter. The quarterbacks will almost certainly prevent Barkley from breaking that drought. But after that? His wait won’t be long.


FIVE FROM SATURDAY

1. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months explaining the NFL’s offensive line crisis, but there are signs that help is on the way. Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey, Oklahoma tackle Orlando Brown, Clemson tackle Mitch Hyatt, Washington tackle Trey Adams and Ohio State center Billy Price are all showing potential ahead of 2018.

2. Michigan linebacker Devin Bush is a true sophomore, so he won’t be draft eligible until 2019. But the son of the former Falcons, Rams and Browns safety was all over the place, again, in the Wolverines’ win over Purdue.

3. Watching Washington crush Colorado to run its record to 4-0—after the mass exodus to the NFL they went through last spring—again makes me wonder if Huskies coach Chris Petersen would ever consider the NFL. Be it at Boise or in Seattle, he’s always gotten the most out of the talent on his roster, and he’s played giant killer at both schools.

4. Speaking of reloading—and this was not a surprise—but what a statement by Nick Saban and Alabama on Saturday, taking an upstart Vanderbilt team and effectively stuffing them in a locker. The Tide outgained Vandy 677-78 in total yardage and had a 38-3 edge in first downs in the 59-0 road rout over the previously perfect Commodores.

5. Florida benching Feleipe Franks and going back to Luke Del Rio creates a fun quarterback showdown for Saturday. The son of Raiders coach Jack Del Rio will lead the Gators into a home game against those rebound-minded Commodores and Kyle Shurmur, son of Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Their dads actually did go head-to-head as head coaches once: On November 20, 2011, Shurmur’s Browns beat Del Rio’s Jaguars 14-10.

Getty Images (3)

1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
2. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, N.C. State
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
4. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
5. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
7. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
8. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
9. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
10. Connor Williams, OT, Texas

Because only four guys on the list actually played this weekend, we have very little movement. Roquan Smith moves up a spot after a terrific SEC title game . . . And I’ll give Sam Darnold a little love, because of the way he’s handled a tough year and come away with a Pac-12 title . . . Connor Williams, by the way, has announced he’ll skip the Texas Bowl against Missouri to prepare for the draft.

Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Top of the Class:

1. Sam Darnold, USC (17-24, 325 yds, 2 TDs, 0 INTs v. Stanford): The Trojans were hit hard by graduation before the year and injuries during it, and so Darnold deserves a lot of credit for guiding USC to its first conference title since the Pete Carroll era. He, in many ways, became the program’s margin for error as so many young players worked through growing pains. We’ll see whether or not he comes out. This much is for sure: Everything people have said about him as a player and a person showed up this year.

2. Josh Rosen, UCLA (DNP): The true junior still has questions about his personality and durability to answer, but few believed he was ever staying in 2018. The arrival of Chip Kelly probably seals his departure, since Kelly’s offense is a less-than-ideal fit for him. Interim coach Jedd Fisch has said he expects Rosen to play in the Cactus Bowl.

3. Josh Allen, Wyoming (DNP): It’s a foregone conclusion that Allen will declare after this, his redshirt junior season. The only question left there is whether he’ll play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (yes, that’s the name of it) against Central Michigan. Allen gets points, as Darnold does, for getting the Cowboys through a rebuilding season. And if you add his off-the-charts tools to his uneven play, you get one of the 2018 draft’s most polarizing prospects.

Helped Himself: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State (12-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs vs. Wisconsin): Barrett didn’t look great throwing the ball against Wisconsin—he missed on a pair throws that would’ve been long touchdowns that could’ve blown the game open, and his unsightly pick-six in the first half kept the Badgers in it. But he played just six days after having arthroscopic surgery to address a meniscus injury that he’s played through all season, and he carried the ball 19 times. Barrett’s toughness and leadership precede him as the only three-time captain in Buckeyes history. And a night like Saturday night should, at least, pique the curiosity of NFL teams and give him a shot to win a roster spot in training camp.

Hurt Himself: Jarrett Stidham, Auburn (16-32, 145 yards, TD vs. Georgia): The redshirt sophomore picked the wrong week to turn in his worst statistical effort of the season, as the Tigers were held to a single touchdown in their SEC title game loss to Georgia. The good news is that, for most of Auburn’s stretch run, he flashed tools that have caught the eye of evaluators, and now we know that Gus Malzahn is staying, which should help push Stidham’s development forward.

Kelly Kline/Getty Images

The Heisman Ceremony (Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN): So Baker Mayfield is the winner over Stanford’s Bryce Love and reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville. And as a reference point, Ohio State’s Troy Smith had the largest margin of victory in Heisman history, having taken 91.63% of the vote in 2006, a mark that Mayfield could best. Got it? We’re good? O.K., so here’s the other thing I’m watching in the coming days: Prospects deciding to skip their bowl games to prepare for the draft, like Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette did last year. We’ve seen three(!) Texas players do it already. Two of the three are expected to go on Thursday (OT Connor Williams) or Friday (LB Malik Jefferson) of draft weekend, whereas S DeShon Elliott may have a tougher road.

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