The running back position has been devalued in the NFL over the past decade. The transformation of the league into a glorified 7-on-7 competition has seemingly rendered running backs as second-class citizens on the draft landscape. With every talking head touting the success of Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt as former third-round picks turned Pro Bowlers, the chorus is growing louder to ignore running backs at the top of the board in hopes of finding a better value in later rounds.
That's why there is so much intrigue surrounding Penn State's Saquon Barkley and where he'll land on draft day. The All-American runner has been pegged as the No. 1 prospect in the class after closing his decorated career with 3,843 rushing yards and 1,195 receiving yards in three seasons. As an electric triple-threat playmaker with prototypical size, strength, and versatility, Barkley has the skill set that could make him a transcendent star at the position.
But is that enough to make him worthy of a top-five selection in today's game?
After taking some time to break down the film and chat with a few NFL executives, here's The Book on Saquon Barkley.
What I'm hearing
"I love him! He is a face-of-the-franchise-type guy. Talented kid with an outstanding work ethic and a big-time game. Barkley should be a star in this league." -- AFC college scouting director
"Barkley is a special player. He checks off all of the boxes as a feature back. From running between the tackles to catching the rock out of the backfield to returning kicks, Barkley gives you a little bit of everything at the position. He is the kind of back that you build an offense around." *-- Former NFL running backs coach *
"Barkley is a big, strong runner with an electric game. He's explosive with the ball in his hands and he's capable of scoring from anywhere on the field as a runner or receiver. When you throw in the positive reviews from his coaches and teammates on his character, work ethic and competitiveness, he seems like a can't-miss guy." *-- AFC personnel executive *
What I'm seeing
Barkley is a big, physical running back with a new-school game. Measuring 5-foot-11, 230-plus pounds with speed reportedly in the 4.3s range (40-yard dash), he's a unique find at the position as a triple-threat playmaker capable of putting the ball in the paint from anywhere on the field as a runner, receiver or returner. With 5,538 all-purpose yards and 53 total touchdowns (43 rushing; eight receiving and two kick returns) in three seasons, he is a solar-system player with an electric set of skills that should prompt coaches to build offensive game plans around him.
As a runner, Barkley's combination of size, speed, and vision enables him to plunge between the tackles on downhill runs. He also flashes enough wiggle, balance and body control to slither to the backside when seams open up. On outside runs, he has enough speed to turn the corner on the perimeter with a mixture of finesse and physicality that makes him a challenge to bring down in the open field. Adept at finishing his runs with a hint of violence, he's a unique offensive tone setter as a big-play threat.
In the passing game, Barkley is exactly what most offensive coaches covet in a RB1. As a big, athletic pass-catcher with soft hands and precise route-running skills, he can be deployed anywhere on the field in spread and empty formations. Much like All-Pro RB Le'Veon Bell creates mismatches and headaches as a big-bodied "hybrid" playmaker, Barkley exhibited those same skills as a collegian in an offense that put the ball in his hands in a variety of ways, particularly as a receiver in space. In today's NFL, Barkley's versatility will be a tremendous asset for an offensive coordinator.
Barkley's pass-protection skills will also serve him well at the next level. The rock-solid back is a thumper in the pocket, exhibiting some snap and pop when taking on blitzing linebackers in the A gaps. He is solid enough in pass protection that he shouldn't have any problem stepping onto the field as a three-down player. In a league where protecting the quarterback is coveted at a premium, Barkley's underrated blocking skills should elevate his grade in meeting rooms around the league.
As a kick returner, Barkley shows outstanding vision and burst with the ball in his hands. He hits the hole with a vengeance and runs through arm tackles with ease. As a big-bodied returner, Barkley's YAC (yards after contact) and explosiveness make him an intriguing option as a "designated hitter" in the return game (NFL teams will use a top offensive weapon in the return game in critical or desperate situations).
If I had to cite a criticism in Barkley's game, I would point to his inconsistent production throughout the 2017 season. Despite being one of the best playmakers in college football, he posted just five games with at least 100 yards rushing during his final season and that's troublesome for scouts coveting consistent production from a top prospect. He was also held to 63 yards or less in five games. Sure, Barkley faced a host of Big Ten defenses that were focused on stopping him, but you would like to see big numbers more consistently from a guy touted as a game changer at the position.
Overall, there are so many things to like about Barkley's game that it's easy to see why he rates as the No. 1 overall player on some boards. He has a number of blue-chip characteristics (explosiveness, vision, and versatility) that make it hard to ignore his potential as a transcendent star at the position.
Barkley's versatility as a workhorse reminds me of a number of elite players at the position. He has the potential to spit out 100-yard games like an ATM machine, similar to David Johnson, Todd Gurley, and the aforementioned Le'Veon Bell, but his rugged style is similar to Ezekiel Elliott's. The former NFL rushing leader is a powerful runner capable of making plays between the tackles or on the outside with a mix of finesse and physicality. Although Elliott hasn't been featured in the passing game in Dallas, he has shown flashes of delivering big plays as a receiver on screens and swing passes.
With Barkley, I see a similar playmaker with the potential to earn a crown as a rusher leader or set the standard as an all-purpose weapon out of the backfield. Considering Elliott's production and impact, I believe the comparisons between the two players will rage on as the draft gets closer.
Where he should be picked
Given his combination of physical skills, measurables, production, and potential, I believe Barkley is the best player in the draft. He's a game changer who could emerge as a superstar early in his career. He's worthy of a top-five pick and he shouldn't go lower than the fifth overall selection.
The New York Giants (No. 2 overall), Cleveland Browns (Nos. 1 and 4), and Indianapolis Colts (No. 3) are great fits for him based on their schemes and needs at the position. The Giants would give Barkley the chance to play with a two-time Super Bowl MVP (Eli Manning) and the most electrifying playmaker in football (Odell Beckham, Jr.). Barkley would alleviate some of the pressure on Manning to carry the offense while also forcing defensive coordinators to abandon some of their double-coverage tactics on OBJ in order to effectively defend the Giants' rebuilt running game. With the Giants looking to make at least one more run at the Lombardi Trophy with Manning at the helm, the move to get Barkley would enhance the team's chances.
In Indianapolis, Barkley would be the perfect sidekick to Andrew Luck. Just like Edgerrin James lightened the load on Peyton Manning, Barkley could make life easier for the Colts' QB1 with his playmaking skills as an explosive offensive weapon. Whether it's running the ball between the tackles and on the edges or catching the ball on swings and screens, Barkley would give the Colts' offense a different dimension. The offensive balance would prevent teams from attacking Luck from all angles and force them to play straight up in normal down and distance situations.
With the Browns, Barkley would become the team's top offensive playmaker from Day 1. He would give new offensive coordinator Todd Haley a Le'Veon Bell-like playmaker to build his offense around. Although the Browns need a few more weapons on the outside to consistently score points in the AFC North, the presence of a versatile back would help them take a big step in the right direction.