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Saquon Barkley and the NFL’s running back debate: Is the New York Giants star heading towards a pay day?
Is Saquon Barkley hurtling towards a bumper pay-day as the reviving heartbeat of Brian Daboll’s New York Giants?; Sky Sports’ Cam Hogwood discusses the value of the modern running back; watch Giants @ Cowboys in an NFL Thanksgiving triple-header, live on Sky Sports NFL from 9.30pm Thursday
Last Updated: 23/11/22 3:22pm
To pay the running back or not to pay the running back? That is the modern NFL’s pressing question, quandary and now Shakespeare-come-Saquon Barkley-led conundrum.
Said conundrum: should a team reward its point guard running back a multi-year, ‘go crazy on the side dishes’ contract with the caveat that spearheading an offense in football’s most collision-heavy position risks debilitating long-term injury? The sub-plot: should a running back-needy team spend a first-round Draft pick on football’s most collision-heavy position despite evidence of late-round and undrafted production?
Brian Daboll’s New York Giants walked sprightly, unassumingly into the 2022 campaign with transition hats on and quietly aware their majestic yet injury-hit blue chip may be free agency-bound were the offense to falter and were the team around him to reveal further deficiencies in need of reinvestment.
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In a ‘prepare for all eventualities’ world, Barkley might play out the fifth-year option on his rookie deal and move onto pastures new in 2023 as the Giants winced in the face of a running back’s longevity minefield.
In the real world, Barkley entered Week 11 leading the NFL in rushing yards as the reviving heartbeat to a Giants offense that functions on the one-cut explosion, tackle-ripping contact balance and shifty open-field elusiveness evoking memories of the Penn State sensation they drafted. He is hurtling towards that pay-day.
“I want to be a Giant for life,” reiterated Barkley after rushing for 152 yards and a touchdown in the Week 10 win over the Houston Texans – Daboll, Joe Schoen, Daniel Jones, Steve Tisch, the Mara family will have zero qualms over signing up to THIS Saquon Barkley for the long term.
“Saquon is a culture guy that fits into everything we’ve asked. He’s a captain and he’s a very good player at his position who’s having a very good season. So, he’s a guy obviously we’re going to do our due diligence on and we’d like to keep him around here, so we can get into contract extension talks.”
Giants GM Joe Schoen speaking earlier in November
Highest-paid running backs based on average per year
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For all the factory-built talent that dazzled early in his career, there were self-explanatory reservations. As tends to be the case these days for a position group prone to regular trench-based physical punishment dating back to college and therefore the threat of truncated careers at the top.
It is the NFL’s risk-reward argument, the oft-unspoken recipe to which partially leans on tailored scheme and astute blocking to accompany the heavy lifting. The aforementioned have started to align, further injury has so far spared him and Barkley is bobbing, weaving and piercing his way back among the elite as the driving force of a playoff contender, not to mention offering bonus strides as a reliable pass protector.
Giants fans feared a trend of injury-led regression when Barkley logged a career-worst 856 scrimmage yards last year as he felt the effects of a hobbling scheme and his recovery from an ACL tear that saw him miss 14 games in 2020. All parties said the right things this past offseason: Saquon adopted a “kill mindset” and vowed to “go crazy” in response to those he felt had written him off, Daboll put the onus on his coaching staff and scheme to unlock the marvel of earlier years.
The answer? Barkley came out of Week 10 leading the NFL with 227 touches (his 244 touches now bettered by Derrick Henry’s 248 after Week 11), averaging a league-high 103.4 rushing yards per game, averaging a league-high 125.3 scrimmage yards per game and having played 83.36 per cent of offensive snaps to mark fifth most on the team. At his destructive best there are few finer players at which to gawp and admire, his battle through adversity an added reason for which to applaud his excellence.
“That’s greatness, there’s no other way to really put it,” Giants offensive tackle Evan Neal told Sky Sports earlier this season. “He’s a tough cat, a resilient cat, I’m going to do everything in my power to help his success, doing my job, executing my blocks to help him succeed.”
He has become a defining workhorse, for which recent history, however, has not always fared kindly.
Todd Gurley became the highest-paid running back in NFL history in 2018 when he signed a four-year, $60m extension in reward for his league-high 2,093 scrimmage yards and 19 touchdowns the previous season. His 1,831 scrimmage yards and 21 end zone visits preceded to spearhead a Jared Goff-quarterbacked offense that ranked first in rush DVOA to Super Bowl LIII. Gurley was hindered by knee issues the next year, subsequently released in the offseason and this year admitted his career was likely over having not played since spending 2020 with the Atlanta Falcons. Once Sean McVay’s focal point and the league’s most flexible weapon, Gurley became a modern, unjust face for running back value obscurity.
David Johnson posted 2,118 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns from 373 touches for the Arizona Cardinals in 2016, suffered a season-ending wrist injury in Week One the following year and agreed a three-year $39m extension before managing 1,386 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns in 2018, only for his numbers to fall off a cliff as he was released in 2019 before spending two quiet campaigns with the Houston Texans.
In fulfilling one of football’s most taxing jobs, the modern running back has every right to pursue the kind of pay day that will offer them and their loved ones long-term financial security, particularly in the event of injury cutting their career short. Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers as he sought a new long-term contract rather than signing his franchise tag following back-to-back 1,200-yard rushing seasons. He went on to agree a four-year, $52.5m deal with the New York Jets in 2019 and managed 1,250 scrimmage yards before rushing for just 429 yards in 19 games over the next two years following stints with the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Bell was never quite the same shifty force that had flourished in Pittsburgh, his year off underlining the difficulty backs face in rediscovering form post-layoff while reflecting well on the Barkleys that have.
“Pay the running backs! Pay us man, we carry the ball more than anybody! That’s kind of the risk also, I get it from the ownership standpoint that you have more risk because you do carry the ball more than others,” Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler previously told Sky Sports. “However, you see these teams with dominant running backs and they’re a big part in the offense and when they’re gone you don’t see as much production from your offense and so I’m all for paying the running backs, absolutely.
“We see the gap between receivers and running backs is huge as far as the top paid receivers and top paid running backs, but it’s like, is the contribution that much different? I feel like that’s what’s really up for debate. It all just comes down to the risk factor of staying healthy and that’s why you see bigger contracts in other positions and the running backs start falling toward the bottom. Because even on a roster you’re going to carry three running backs and all three of those running backs are going to play one spot, that’s just because you’re more prone to getting injured there. I’m all for paying the running backs because we do contribute so much to the offense.”
In Barkley’s case he has come through injury and absence to put up chart-topping numbers on the other side. He currently accounts for 47 per cent of his team’s touches and 33 per cent of his team’s yardage in an offense that had entered Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Lions with its highest EPA/play after 10 weeks since 2015, at which point Odell Beckham Jr was hurtling towards a career year.
It is the production expected of a No 2 overall pick that represents the foundation of Daboll and Mike Kafka’s entire system. Does a financial risk become less of a risk when a premium left tackle position is filled by Andrew Thomas, when rookie first-rounder Evan Neal is anchoring the pass protection across from him for the next decade, when the Giants believe they have an upper tier edge rusher of the future in rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux, when an under-pressure quarterback is efficiently playing his way towards a franchise tag or extension and when college football’s wide receiver factory is there to dip into? Perhaps.
Christian McCaffrey became the highest-paid running back in NFL history by signing a four-year, $64m extension in 2020 after his record-shattering season with the Carolina Panthers, before playing just 10 games over the next two seasons due to injury. The San Francisco 49ers were prepared to look past his setbacks when they traded for him ahead of October’s deadline, pouncing on the $690k first-year salary created by his restructured deal while very aware of the $12m cap hit to come in 2023. Unlike Barkley resurrecting a team, the Niners sought another potential Super Bowl line-crosser with which to push their cause. A new deal for star pass rusher Nick Bosa awaits, but throw in some salary gymnastics, a likely increased salary cap next year and the team’s evident faith in Trey Lance post-injury, and they will take the McCaffrey hit.
The Giants’ ambitions were to return to winning season territory, and Barkley is helping them achieve that. But can the feature-back production last? Derrick Henry was the league’s back-to-back rushing champion in 2019 and 2020 before seeing his 2021 campaign cut short by injury after eight games, yet has gone toe-for-toe with Barkley at the top of the rushing charts so far this season. The Tennessee Titans bulldozer continues to resist the influx of committee backfields as the DNA of Mike Vrabel’s offense, Nick Chubb argues a similar case for pound-the-rock consistency in Cleveland, while Jonathan Taylor, albeit taking some time to hit his stride this season, has spent the last two years easing the Indianapolis Colts’ foiled search for a franchise quarterback.
Counter-arguments come in the form of Ekeler, the Chargers’ all-purpose machine who enters Week 11 with a league-high 31 touchdowns since the start of 2021 and ranks third in most receiving yards by a running back since he entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Should you draft a running back in the early rounds if there are more Ekelers out there? Should you pay a running back a bumper extension if you can go and find the next Ekeler instead? That’s not to say the conversation is exclusive to the backfield, by the way. And in fairness to Austin Ekeler, he is becoming one of the NFL’s staple undrafted success stories.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire was deemed a luxury pick for the just-crowned Super Bowl champion Chiefs as the 32nd overall pick at the 2020 Draft, and yet seventh-round rookie Isaiah Pacheco is already threatening to assume lead back duties under Andy Reid. The New York Jets added a Rookie of the Year contender in second-rounder Breece Hall before he suffered a season-ending torn ACL, while Houston Texans fourth-round pick Dameon Pierce has emerged as one of the toughest, most productive young runners in the league. Welcome to the draft. Welcome to running back life.
“I think the running back value will actually go up and you’ll see why it’s going to go up,” Denver Broncos running back Chase Edmonds told Sky Sports in a previous interview. “One, you’ve got guys like Derrick Henry, he’s doing a phenomenal job of recreating the running back mould where that whole offense in Tennessee is based around Derrick Henry’s legs. The success they’ve had, he rightfully got paid and now he’s still balling out.
“What I think you’ll see with more guys like Kamara, McCaffrey, Ekeler, guys who can be dual-threat guys out the backfield and show their value to an offense, I think you’ll see the running back value go up just because it’s such a mismatch now in today’s game where if you’ve got a guy who is just as good as your WR4 carrying the ball 20 times a game but also getting out and giving you seven routes and he’s giving you first downs on that option route it creates such a great value for quarterbacks and team offenses.”
James Robinson once looked like another counter when he set a new record for most scrimmage yards by a rookie undrafted free agent in history with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and for 2015 undrafted free agent Raheem Mostert to have been cut by six teams before starring on the 49ers’ road to the Super Bowl in 2019 spoke to the talent that might be available further down the board should the environment be right.
A Kyle Shanahan, Mike McDaniel-guided environment is usually right. And in an ironic way the two run game masters do little for the value of the position in which they have become chief innovators by sourcing contributors beyond the flashy commodities: when Mostert was limited by injury in 2020 Shanahan turned to 2018 undrafted free agent Jeff Wilson Jr as his eventual leading rusher; in a 2021 draft class featuring Najee Harris, Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams, Shanahan plucked Elijah Mitchell in the sixth-round before unleashing the Louisiana product for 963 yards in 11 games as his new lead back.
Then there was Deebo Samuel, Shanahan’s best wide receiver who would also become his best running back last season with 1,770 scrimmage yards after carrying the ball 59 times and lining up in the backfield for 116 snaps – hereby forming the ‘wide-back’. He may have been in a league of his own as the most dangerous weapon in football over the second half of the year, but yards-after-catch-savvy receivers and mobile tight ends venturing into the backfield have become one of football’s most popular fads.
A receiver that can play running back. Why draft or pay a running back at all?! The flip side of course being that Alvin Kamara, Ekeler and McCaffrey having combined for 10,221 receiving yards since the start of 2018, while James White retired this year with 3,278 receiving yards as one of the most effective pass-catching backs of the last decade and a beloved cog to Tom Brady’s dynasty offense in New England.
“I think that in regards to the running back position, quarterbacks, there are a lot of quarterbacks drafted in the first round that have been stinky, does that mean you don’t draft them in the first round, is that mean you wait until they’re undrafted?” former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew told Sky Sports in a previous interview. “When people talk about the running back position, a lot of those teams that have won Super Bowls have had balanced offenses, they run the ball well and throw the ball well. You need a good running game for any quarterback to be successful.”
Barkley’s stock is boosted by his own expertise as an open-field gem, be it the ability to make magic as a checkdown option or the speed and change in direction to gain separation on downfield routes. In doing so he has been everything Daniel Jones could have wanted in the most important season of his career thus far.
There is a hint of old school football to the current NFL, a ‘run, run, run until running no longer works’ ethos as offenses seek to control the clock to supress high-octane attacks, and as they navigate life against light-box invite-the-run looks, whether fact or fiction, and two-deep shells and coveted ‘drop seven, rush four’ coverages designed to limit chunk plays downfield. It is a good time for running backs to eat – but when the time comes that a stacked box wins, when the run game stalls and when a contest must be won in the air, are your quarterback and receiving corps up to it?
The stacked boxes are, well, stacking up and Barkley has averaged just 2.82 yards per carry over the last three games having averaged 5.25 yards per attempt across the first seven weeks. He averaged a season-low 22 yards and 1.47 yards per attempt from 15 carries during Sunday’s defeat to the Lions as the offense slumped to a -0.03 EPA/play. The Giants will pay Saquon, and rightly so, while knowing he needs help.
Barkley has been stalked by the pressure of being taken second overall during a marred Dave Gettleman-reign, a streak of losing seasons not helping the ‘what the Giants could have had instead’ conversation. But running back perception has become situational, and in the Giants’ case their early receiver-lacking success under Daboll is not as seamless as it has been without No 26 doing No 26 things.
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