Is RB Saquon Barkley an elite RB?

Is RB Saquon Barkley overrated?

By: Brady Akins

We, as a collective society, live in a world of first impressions. If the first thing I ever did to you bought you an ice cream cone, it would probably take a lot to convince you after the fact that I’m probably not a decent person. If the first thing I ever did to you wrote an article trashing your favorite running back, well, it might take some time to convince you that I actually do know what I’m talking about.

So when professional football’s first impression of Saquon Barkley, the former all-world running back from Penn State, was complete and utter domination of the NFL Scouting Combine— most of the world was head over heels. Including the New York Giants, who used the second overall pick in 2018 to make Barkley the highest-drafted running back since Reggie Bush in 2006.

And to be fair, Barkley’s combine performance was staggering– finishing with a 4.40 40-yard dash, the second-best time for a running back in 2018, 29 reps on the bench press, tied for the year’s best for running backs, and a vertical leap of 41.0 inches, another best among 2018 running backs. So it wasn’t too surprising when New York used that pick to take Barkley ahead of quarterbacks like Sam Darnold and Josh Allen, or offensive linemen like Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. 

And in Barkley’s first season, he went to work on strengthening his already strong first impression, making the Pro Bowl as a rookie with 1,307 rushing yards as a runner, 91 receptions as a pass catcher, and a league-best 2,028 yards from scrimmage en route to a runaway Offensive Rookie of the Year season. 

In 2019, things weren’t quite as good for the Giants running back. Not bad, by any stretch, but not up to par with the king of first impressions. His rushing production dropped from 1,300 yards to barely over 1,000, his touchdown volume dropped from 15 total to eight, and his pass-catching volume plummeted, falling from 121 targets in 2018 to 73 the following year.

Again, not bad. But for a player being projected by ESPN’s Matthew Berry as the most valuable player in PPR leagues to fall to 10th in points per game among running backs and behind 21 other skill position players in total PPR scoring– Barkley’s plummet could be considered ‘bust-worthy’ if you took him first overall.

Granted, injuries did derail some of Barkley’s 2019 potential, forcing him out for three games. But after a torn ACL in Week 2 of 2020 forced Barkley out for the Giants’ remaining 14 games, injury concerns might be a problem in their own right. 

Injuries and a decline in production haven’t yet wavered the overall fantasy football community, however, as Barkley heads into 2021 drafts as the fifth-ranked running back by ESPN in PPR leagues, and the consensus fourth overall player on FantasyPros in standard-scoring leagues.

Just like in 2019 and 2020, Barkley is gearing up for yet another fantasy season selected as a high first-round player. But after back-to-back disappointing seasons, it becomes fair to wonder, is the fantasy football world thinking too highly of Saquon Barkley?

Expectation vs Reality

As mentioned at the top, first impressions mean the world through the lens of football. NFL scout’s first impression of Barkley was a physically gifted player ahead of anyone else in the class. Football fans first impression of Barkley him being a highlight machine capable of tearing up a football field as a player who averaged five yards per carry and nearly eight yards per catch. 

And for fantasy managers, their first impression of Barkley was a bonafide first-round running back, capable of producing highly as a runner and receiver. After ending 2018 as the league’s highest-scoring running back in PPR league’s and second-highest scoring in standard leagues– the benchmark for Barkley as an elite fantasy asset was set.

Of course, as we’ve already explored, 2019 marked a dropoff, and with a season-ending injury, 2020 was far worse for the consensus first-round running back.

But even examining Barkley’s performance through the small sample size of 2020 presents enough concerns on its own. With 19 carries through five quarters last season– Barkley managed just 34 yards. Yes, his two matchups came against two strong defenses in the Steelers and Bears, respectively, but a 1.8 yards per carry end to the year is a far cry from the numbers you would expect from a superstar. 

Barkley has actually developed a nasty habit for inconsistent production on the ground since his 2018 campaign. Dating back to 2019, Barkley has had four games of over five yards per carry, including his brief appearance against the Bears with 28 yards on four carries– and four games under two yards per carry, including a 13 carry performance against the Jets in 2019 that resulted in just one yard. 

You never know what version of Barkley to expect on the ground, despite his combine measurables and penchant for explosive plays. One week he can be a fantasy football powerhouse, and in another, he can rush for one yard. This showed up in 2020 as well, when Barkley’s only full game was a 15 carry, six-yard showing against the Steelers.

The saving grace of Barkley has been his ability in the passing game, which flashed tremendously in his rookie year with quarterback Eli Manning under center. With Daniel Jones, however, Barkley’s production as a receiver has been relatively limited.

In 2018, Barkley finished with eight or more targets in half of his games– including five games with 10 or more, a level of volume that led to a peak of 121 targets in 2018. With Manning running the show through the first two weeks of 2019, that balance between rushing and receiving carried on, with six and seven targets in his first two games, respectively. However, when the Giants made the switch to Daniel Jones at quarterback, Barkley’s receiving volume suffered. Since then, he has seen just two games in 12 starts with eight or more targets, and just four games with six or more.

In addition to inconsistency as a runner, Barkley has not had the receiving volume to make up for spotty performances on the ground. And in 2021, Barkley’s target share might continue to decrease.

So Many Mouths, Not Enough Cooks

The Giants made moves in the offseason, the biggest of which came at the wide receiver spot. 

Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and the tight end Evan Engram, the Giants three leading receivers from 2020, all remain in New York. Joining them will be the veteran Pro Bowler Kenny Golladay and the first-round rookie Kadarius Toney.

What was once a shallow group of pass-catchers that leaned on Barkley out of necessity is now a group with deep talent, and a young quarterback who has yet to make a habit of checking down to his running back. 

Barkley’s volume in the passing game dropped by nearly 50 targets in the span of a year, and it could continue to decrease. To be the elite running back that the fantasy world still thinks he can be, Barkley will need to lean heavily on his ability as a runner. That, just like his passing target volume, has dropped off since 2018, as well.

2018 saw Barkley finish second in total rushing yards, behind only the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliot. His 5.0 yards per attempt were good for ninth in the league, showing an ability to do a lot with a little, and his 11 rushing touchdowns were good for fifth in the league. All stats and rankings plummeted in 2019.

From second at 1,307 rushing yards to 16th with 1,003. From ninth in yards per carry to tied for 14th. From fifth in rushing touchdowns to tied for 20th. Across the board, Barkley was a worse player in 2019 than he was the year the world fell in love with him.

That’s not to say that 2019 is the new standard. However, Barkley faces an uphill climb to be the clear-cut RB1 the world wants him to be. 

It’s a world of first impressions, and Saquon Barkley nailed his. But the reality since then has failed to live up to expectations.

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