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Breaking Down the New York Giants' Looming Decision Regarding RB Saquon Barkley

New York Giants team ownership has said they'd like for Saquon Barkley to be a Giant for life. But does his career production warrant such a commitment?

Giants team president John Mara has said numerous times that he hopes running back Saquon Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft, will be a Giant for life.

But if that means signing Barkley to a hefty long-term contract, well, Mara and the Giants might want to think twice about that, writes SI’s Albert Breer in his latest mailbag:

If I were the Giants, I’d be really careful about giving Barkley his next contract, and I didn’t feel that way about (Ezekiel) 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.

Breer went on to disclose his research into Barkley’s statistical history, which can best be summed up as a “feast or famine” type of showing.

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.

The trend, noted Breer, carried over to the NFL.

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).

As Breer also points out, other factors go into a running back’s success, namely the blocking up front, the defense’s game plan against him (i.e., how many 8-man boxes he faces), and, of course, injuries.

Center Nick Gates, who spoke to the media this past week, had a rather candid response when asked about how Barkley looked.

“Sometimes there was a little hole here that he could have maybe stuck to, but sometimes there was not a hole at all, and he tried to make a play and he just couldn’t,” Gates said. 

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“But we just got to no matter what, just as an offensive line be able to make sure he has a hole to run through and just give him a little bit of something, so that he can see.”

As for how defenses are playing him, in 2018, his rookie season, Barkley saw 8+ men in the box on 22.99% of his carries, according to NextGen Stats. 

Since then, that percentage has decreased, dropping to 11.21% in 2019 (the year he missed three games with a high ankle sprain) and zero thus far in 2021. (The stats only cover runners with at least 85 carries, so Barkley’s 8+ men box percentage in 2020 wasn’t reflected in NextGen Stats.)

The Giants are a much different team now versus when they drafted Barkley in 2018. Back then, the hope was that adding a legitimate running game would help take some of the onus off Eli Manning's aging arm and allow him to extend a career that, in retrospect, might have gone on too long.

In retrospect, the Barkley pick seems more and more like a vanity draft pick than a necessary one, given how the Giants have struggled to come up with a top-shelf offensive line unit since Dave Gettleman came on board as the team's general manager. 

But I digress as it's not Barkley's say as to where or when he was drafted. Injuries aside, the problem with Barkley is that he often plays more like a track athlete--he's a guy who seems to be looking for the home run ball where he can put his speed and athleticism on display rather than settling for singles that are there for the taking.

Barkley spent the entire summer not seeing any live reps, which, while understandable, was a problem in that no matter how much the coaches tried, the speed and intensity of the game cannot be replicated with precision in practice.

Barkley, per NextGen Stats, averaged 2.97 behind the line of scrimmage, which could suggest a vision issue with him trying to get his feel back. Then again, in his rookie campaign, his average was 2.93 seconds, not much better.

For comparison sakes, Christian McCaffrey of Carolina averaged 2.75 seconds behind the line of scrimmage in 2018 and 2.69 seconds in his first game this year.

Again, to be fair, Barkley is coming off a serious knee injury, and it is not fair to write him off after all he’s been through to come back.

That said, the trends before his injury shouldn’t be ignored when considering a long-term deal ahead of other needs that are likely to be just as pressing, if not more so down the line.  


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