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Mailbag: Is Saquon Barkley’s Production a Concern?

The Giants’ running back is a home run threat without consistent yardage totals. Plus, we answer questions on Urban Meyer rumors, Zach Wilson’s first game, Taylor Heinicke, Russell Wilson’s big game, the Browns’ defense and the first $30 million defensive player.

Week 2’s coming fast, and so are we—with answers to all of your questions here …

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From Preston Parker Burner (@PFFcorndog): Is Saquon's inability to read leverage and attack the lane fixable? Year 4, and it’s still a problem. On days where the run blocking is fine, he makes them look awful by getting tackled for losses by dancing for HRs. Wayne Gallman shouldn't look like an improvement down to down.

Preston, this is something that’s been on my radar for a long time—and it’s actually something I noticed after Saquon Barkley’s last game against my alma mater in 2017. The then Penn State junior had a 97-yard touchdown on the game’s opening kickoff. But the rest of the day? He had 44 yards on 21 carries and 23 yards on four catches.

So I looked a little deeper at it and saw a pattern. By the time that season was over, Barkley had been held to fewer than 80 yards in seven of his final 11 games and had just 88 rushing yards the week before that stretch started. In 2016, Barkley posted just five 100-yard games and was held to 85 yards or fewer seven times. Which means in his final two college seasons, he had more games of 85 yards or fewer (14) than he had of 100 yards or more (10). Add in his freshman year, and he had 20 of the former and 15 of the latter as a collegian.

Want some context? Jonathan Taylor rushed for 100 yards in 22 of 27 games his last two years at Wisconsin, and 32 of 41 games in his three years in Madison. Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 100 yards in 17 of his final 18 games at Ohio State, and 26 of his final 30. So those two guys, out of the same conference, were far more consistent coming into the NFL.

And sure enough, this trend carried right over into the pros. Barkley’s played 32 NFL games and has rushed for fewer than 50 yards on more occasions (13) than he has rushed for more than 100 yards (11). Moreover, in seven of his 11 100-yard games, he’s had a run of 50 yards or more, which only adds to the idea that he’s a football Adam Dunn (.237 career average with 462 home runs).

Now, it’s fair to say that with any running back, there are more factors than just how he’s running—there’s blocking, how a defense is playing him and how offensive coaches approach the game. I also couldn’t tell you whether vision is an issue with Barkley. What I would say, though, is week-to-week consistency of production for Barkley followed him to the NFL, the same it has for Elliott (a two-time NFL rushing champion) and, early on, Taylor.

If I were the Giants, I’d be really careful about giving Barkley his next contract, and I didn’t feel that way about Elliott or Todd Gurley when they signed, mostly because their teams’ offensive identities were centered on the tailbacks. Four years in, you can’t say that about the Giants. We’ll see whether that changes.

From Danny (@BetTheOver85): What have you heard about the Urban rumors?

Danny, I understand why people are immediately going to connect Urban Meyer to USC. Meyer’s been connected to USC since leaving Ohio State three years ago, and he worked the last two football seasons with Fox out of Los Angeles. In going there he’d get to be at a blueblood program that’s not a rival of his old friends in Gainesville or Columbus. The Trojan administration should at least put feelers out there on him.

That said, there are two things that make me think he’s going nowhere.

One, the Jaguars didn’t just bring in Meyer in January, they brought in his whole program. Owner Shad Khan paid the freight for the NFL’s largest staff, a blend of college and NFL assistants, and added support staff to line up with what Meyer wanted for his players. Khan’s also building a $150 million practice facility. And all this happened because it was what it was going to take to get Meyer back on the sidelines.

Two, I’m not sure Meyer wants to recruit anymore. In fact, when I asked him last month why he’s still coaching, he brought it up on his own in answering the question: “I prayed hard on it. It’s ironic you bring Jimmy Johnson into it; he’s been a mentor. He wasn’t in my younger days, but he’s become a mentor the last couple years. I’ve admired him. We’ve become friends. And I just felt an emptiness, and I had some opportunities in college. He made a comment to me one time, ‘You’ve reached the point, do what you want to do.’

“Do I really want to go recruit 24/7 like it became? I’ve done that. I’ve always admired and appreciated and respected the NFL, and then this Shad Khan guy, once I got to know him, I love the guy. He wants to win so bad. I’ve always loved Jacksonville, Florida. And it’s like this puzzle got put together. I looked at film endlessly, and saw some decent players here, and I thought, Let’s go take a swing at it. And that’s why we did it.”

The recruiting piece is one that few people pay enough attention to when considering coaches’ going to college from the NFL or vice versa. There are pluses to being in college for coaches—you have control, you build your roster as you see fit, the whole operation centers on you and your vision. But the relentless nature of recruiting that, like Meyer said, means chasing 16- and 17-year-olds around the clock is a big drawback for a lot of guys.

Is Meyer one of them? What he said to me there would indicate he is.

So while I’ll never say never with Meyer, I’d look at the investment the Jaguars made in him combined with what a college job would demand of him as real reasons for him to stay where he is.

From Steve (@skreve904): Who's to blame for the Jaguars’ being so unprepared?

Steve, weird stuff happens in Week 1, but you’re not wrong to ask the question, because that first half for the Jags was beyond bad. The Texans—who some had pegged as the worst team in the league—outgained Jacksonville 288–180 in the first 30 minutes, had 13 first downs to the Jags’ eight, controlled the ball for more than 17 minutes, scored on three of four trips into the red zone and won the turnover battle 2–0.

Personally, when the issues are across the board like that, on both sides of the ball, with turnovers and in situational football, it falls on the head coach. Which is to say, yes, it’s now on Meyer to find the right answers coming out of his first game, and first loss, as an NFL head coach, a loss that also happens to be just his 33rd in 18 years as a head coach.

So now it’s on a guy who’s not used to losing much, and has struggled to handle losing in the past, not to let what happened last week happen again. For obvious reasons, it’ll be interesting to see how Meyer adjusts to the NFL’s realities—one being that winning every week isn’t all that realistic, especially for a first-year coach in a rebuild.

From Paul Andrew Esden Jr (@BoyGreen25): Initial thoughts on Zach Wilson + do the Jets finally have their savior?

Paul, my initial thoughts are that I like his fight and the way he seemed to settle in as the game went on—and that was as Brian Burns, Haason Reddick, Derrick Brown and the rest of a promising Panthers front was knocking him around to the tune of six sacks and 10 recorded quarterback hits. And that progress was easily reflected in the numbers, with his passer rating up nearly 100 points from a shaky first half to a solid second half.

First half: 6-for-16, 84 yards, INT, 29.2 rating.

Second half: 14-for-21, 174 yards, 2 TDs, 123.9 rating.

Even more impressive was that the improvement continued after the Jets lost left tackle Mekhi Becton (and, yes, I know he wasn’t playing great, but his absence led to New York’s having to shuffle the deck up front). And I can tell you the staff liked how he stayed within himself and took what the defense gave him early on, then got more comfortable and made some off-schedule plays late, as he got his footing.

Now, do the Jets have their savior? That much I don’t know. We were all saying nice things about Mark Sanchez and Sam Darnold early in Year 1, and that’s how it goes with young quarterbacks—they’re in a honeymoon phase and we’re all mostly looking for the positives, and reasons why the potential that made them first-round picks in the first place will be realized.

I will say that, over time, the Jets will have to do more to help him. He played most of the second half facing a double-digit deficit, and because of that the team called 43 pass plays to 17 runs, which didn’t help a line that’s just learning to play with each other. But if they can create a better environment around him—and, as Robert Saleh told him on draft night, lift him up, rather than asking him to lift them up—there’s plenty to work with here.

Washington Football Team quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick

From sklusty25 (@sklusty25): How at risk is Antonio Gibson for a serious injury on a short turnaround? Taylor Heinicke the answer? Or does Ron bring in Cam Newton?

From Moose Block (@moose_block): With WFT’s Fitzpatrick out 6 to 8 weeks, can Taylor Heinicke lead the team to some wins?

So S.K. Lusty and Moose, Heinicke’s got the confidence of the coaching staff, and that’s a good place for any player to start. He also played great in relief of Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday against the Chargers, going 11-of-15 for 122 yards and a touchdown. And he’s got a good young skill group around him, with Terry McLaurin, Logan Thomas, Dyami Brown and Antonio Gibson all standing as ascending players.

That brings us to the second piece of this—while Heinicke’s not anyone’s long-term answer at quarterback, Washington can win with him, and there are not a lot of teams that can say that nearly as confidently about their backup. Which prompts the question, if you’re asking the team to bring in Newton … at this point, why?

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If you’re looking for a six-week stopgap at the position—Newton wouldn’t come in with preexisting relationships with any of the skill players or knowledge in how the offense has evolved since he played in it two years ago—wouldn’t the learning curve negate the upside of taking a swing at Cam? And if you had to change the scheme to make it work for him, is that’s what’s best for the other 10 guys in the huddle? Also, would it be good for Heinicke in the interim, while Newton’s getting up to speed, to have an ex-NFL MVP sitting there?

I personally feel like there’s good reason why Rivera’s resisted making a run at Newton at various point of the last two years, and it has nothing to do with whether he likes Newton (he definitely does) or respects all Newton accomplished for him (ditto). In fact, it’s that history together that, I think, probably makes it harder for Washington to consider taking on a lesser version of the former Panthers star. Easier to leave the past where it is.

As for Gibson, since you asked, my understanding is his AC joint sprain is minor. They’ll pad it up for the game Thursday, and he’ll get 10 days to rest it up after. He should be fine.

From Shane (@Shane_slippy): Please tell me Russ had a more impressive win than Stafford because of the difficulty of throws. The Bears just blew coverage.

Shane, I thought Russell Wilson was excellent, and that was a reflection of that fact that he didn’t let the offseason drama he was embroiled in (and, in part, created) take him off task at all. Through all of that, he was working with new OC Shane Waldron, and it really showed in the opener.

It might’ve been most apparent on the Seahawks’ first touchdown. That came on a third-and-6 with less than two minutes left in the first quarter. The Colts sent seven on the play, basically calling a team meeting in Wilson’s lap. And Wilson stood in, trusted the call and threw a strike that moved Tyler Lockett away from Khari Willis, giving chase, and behind Julian Blackmon, who was coming over to help.

What’s interesting is he’d throw three more touchdown passes, and none of those, or the first one, came off play-action—when the way Waldron’s offense uses play-action is one of the things that excited Wilson about playing in the new scheme. So he had success outside of that area, and when Seattle did throw out of play-action, Wilson graded out well in taking what the defense gave him.

And the offense worked for him, too. Wilson’s final touchdown pass, with a little over six minutes left, was to DK Metcalf, and came out of a look similar to one the Seahawks had just run the ball out of.

That said, if you want me to compare him to Matthew Stafford, I’ll tell you Stafford was impressive in how decisive he was, and how quickly he knew where to go with the ball in a new offense. Both guys had really good Sundays, and we’ll see where it goes from here. (Yes, that’s a total copout.)

From Craig (@cde_48): Concerned about Joe Woods’s defense, or was it because of the Chiefs/Mahomes?

Craig, I wouldn’t be concerned based on what you saw Sunday. One of the Chiefs’ touchdowns was a 75-yard reverse-field bomb from Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill that, really, isn’t happening with many, if any, other quarterback-receiver tandems. And another was after the Browns’ punt fiasco put the high-flying Chiefs in first-and-10 from the Cleveland 15-yard line.

Before that, and over the first 48 minutes of the game, Cleveland had held the Chiefs to a respectable 296 yards and just 20 points. Against that team, in that building, you’ll take that. Also, Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney pretty consistently got pressure, and the secondary was competitive against the NFL’s most dangerous aerial attack.

I’m not going to tell anyone to send Woods’s gameplan to Canton. But I think there’s plenty of good the Browns can take from that one.

From Brian (@fhbrian): What are your thoughts on the offensive coordinator change and 3WR/2TE switch in Tennessee after Sunday?

Brian, I wasn’t aware of this difference in how Todd Downing’s running the offense, so I went and looked it up, and you’re right—the Titans had three receivers (A.J. Brown, Julio Jones and Chester Rogers) play more than 60% of the snaps Sunday, and no tight end was out there even half the time for the offense. In fact, if you add up the tight end snaps (Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim and MyCole Pruitt), they had only 71 among them, in a game in which Tennessee ran 64 offensive plays.

There could be a few things at work here. First, the Titans just have better depth at receiver than at tight end, particularly after letting Jonnu Smith walk. Second, Tennessee was down 17–0 less than 20 minutes into the game, which certainly could’ve forced the Titans to open things up a little. Third, I think the background of your coordinator does mean something. Downing’s reputation is as a coach who’ll toggle personnel groupings, whereas Arthur Smith’s system, true to its roots, had always leaned on its tight ends.

Is there reason to doubt Downing? Well, his year as a coordinator in Oakland in 2017 wasn’t great, and the expectation was Jack Del Rio was going to fire him after that season, had Del Rio not been fired himself, to make way for Jon Gruden. (Del Rio promoted him the year before and fired Bill Musgrave, because other teams were trying poach him.) As it was, Oakland dipped from 12–4 to 6–10, Derek Carr regressed and the offense collapsed.

The perceived problem, as I recall it, was that Downing wasn’t as tough on players as the hard-charging Musgrave, and the feeling was that he was more Carr’s friend than his coach, and Carr’s slipping on some details in his game didn’t disprove that. But he was also just 37 and didn’t have much time to correct things that went wrong. Likewise, in this case, it’s been only one week.

But it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on this one. Smith set a high bar. And everyone who runs the Shanahan offense will tell you that you have to know how to teach it at a grassroots level to run it. Smith learned it from Matt LaFleur, who grew up in it. Downing learned it from Smith, who was running it for the first time. Stay tuned.

TJ-Watt-Steelers

From TJ (@ChrisTJ31): With T.J. Watt's deal reaching 28 million APY, who do you think will be the first 30 million per year defender? It's going to be Chase Young, right?

Fun fact, TJ: The nine highest-paid defensive players in football play on the line of scrimmage (either as tackles, ends, or on-the-line linebackers). Jalen Ramsey is the top off-the-line defensive player, and he’s tied for 10th with, yup, another lineman, Chiefs tackle Chris Jones, at $20 million per, more than $8 million short of Watt.

So that tells you that the player who breaks the ceiling of $30 million per on defense will almost certainly be a pass-rusher type. Young’s certainly in the conversation, but he won’t be eligible for his second deal until early 2023. Is there anyone who could top Watt between now and then? The guy I’m keeping an eye on is Young’s college teammate, 49ers star Nick Bosa.

Bosa’s brother, Joey, is in at $27 million per, and the two share an agent. And while the Niners’ current brass didn’t extend players like DeForest Buckner or Arik Armstead with two years left on their rookie deals, Bosa could be one who, if he has a monster year, they break precedent for when he becomes eligible for a deal. The reason to, in my mind, would be to get ahead of what could be a gambling/TV revenue-fueled explosion in the cap in 2023.

Either way, I think there’s a good chance it’ll be one of those two guys, either Bosa or Young.

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From Carson Williams (@tweetsbycarson): How will Trey Lance be used moving forward? Are we just going to see him in the wildcat role, or is he eventually going to get some reps at QB1?

Carson, I wouldn’t rule anything out with Kyle Shanahan. I don’t think they’ll go to the full-on quarterback platoon that was discussed in the summer, but I wouldn’t rule out the team’s slowly spoon-feeding Lance a little more on a week-to-week basis. The benefit to doing it is twofold. It aids in Lance’s development. And it also gives other teams a lot to think about.

Of course, the question then becomes when the reins are handed over. I wouldn’t totally rule out a scenario like what happened in San Francisco in 2012—where an injury opened a window for Colin Kaepernick to take the job from Alex Smith, and Kaepernick seized the opportunity and didn’t look back. But right now, Garoppolo’s playing really well, Lance isn’t quite ready to run the offense and the Niners are winning.

If some combination of those three things changes, we can talk more about this. For now, Garoppolo’s earned the shot to keep playing.

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Glad to see your GamePlan column is back … any updates on the Pod?

Thanks for reading, Matt! The GamePlan will be here every Friday, and I’ll definitely keep you all updated on the podcast. For now, be sure to check out The Hurry-Up, our new weekly web show. Last week, we had a great show with Matt Cassel and Donté Stallworth as our panelists, and we’ve got another good one lined up this week.

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