After two games of the 2017 college football season, many analysts were already handing Penn State running back Saquon Barkley the Heisman Trophy. The problem with that is a college football season doesn’t last two games, it lasts 12 to 14 games depending on if the school gets to a conference championship game and a bowl game.
Over the past six weeks Barkley’s production has not been close to Heisman material.
Barkley is an excellent college back, but he is more of an all-around player than a pure runner. In fact to try and say that he is a better back than guys like Zeke Elliot or Leonard Fournette is ludicrous. There styles are completely different and both Fournette and Elliott are far better pure runners who are excellent both inside and out. Both are punishing runners with great after contact ability. That is not Barkley’s game.
Barkley is a junior who will most likely enter the NFL Draft after this season. He has excellent size at about 5-foot-11 and 226 pounds with great speed. I would estimate that he will run in the 4.4s at the Combine. On top of having excellent play speed, he also has a very quick burst and his stop and go ability is as good as there is.
Despite being as big as he is, Barkley does not play like a big back. He plays much closer to a 205 pound type that a 225-230 pound back. He is more finesse than a power guy and is by no means a punishing type runner.
Saquon is a very quick starter and has excellent vision and instincts. That both helps and hurts.
With his speed, quickness, and elusiveness he is a great space player and when he gets in the open field there is an excellent chance that he will take it the distance. His problem is he is not a great inside runner. Too often he dances around trying to make the big play rather than taking what’s there. When that happens he often gets hit for a loss or no gain when he very well could have had a 2-3 yard gain if he took what was there.
Once he gets to the NFL he can’t do that as holes in the pro game aren’t anywhere near as big as holes in college. His after-contact ability in tight spaces is just average and he cannot move the pile.
As a receiver, Barkley is as good as it gets. He can line up split out or in the slot and get open versus man coverage. He is quick in and out of cuts and can get separation. Barkley adjusts to the ball very well and has very good hands. After the catch he is dangerous and is capable of turning a short completion into a long gain. As a kickoff returner, he is similar in that he has the capability of taking it to the house with his top open field run skills.
While I don’t compare Barkley to players like Elliott or Fournette, he is much more like Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey. Both have a skill set that allows them to be used as a running back, a receiver and a returner. Some will argue that Barkley is much bigger. That is true, but he doesn’t play bigger. As I said above, Barkley plays much smaller than his measured size. If you look at the college numbers of both McCaffrey and Barkley, McCaffrey was more productive and physical as a pure runner even though he is 20-25 pounds smaller.
In McCaffrey’s final two seasons at Stanford he ran for 2,019 and 1,603 yards. The 1,600-yard season came in 2016 when he was hampered by an ankle injury. His average per carry in those seasons was 7.1 and 6.0. As a receiver, McCaffrey had 45 and 37 receptions his final two years. It should be noted that McCaffrey's numbers in 2016 were for just 10.5 games as he missed a game-and-a-half with the ankle injury and did not play in Stanford’s bowl game.
In the past two seasons, Barkley ran for 1,499 yards in 2016 and to date this year he has 899 yards. His average per carry was 5.5 and 5.4 yards. He caught 28 balls in 2016 and has 40 catches to date this year. Barkley averages about 14 yards per catch over the past two seasons. McCaffrey averaged 14.3 yards per catch in ’15 but was only 8.1 a year ago.
A stat that should be pointed out is that Barkley has only run for 100+ yards in three games this year and has run for fewer than 70 yards in five games. In 2016, Barkley only had four games in which he ran for 100 or more yards. McCaffrey on the other hand only had three games in both 2015 and 2016 seasons where he didn’t break 100 yards. So as you can see, McCaffey’s numbers are superior against very similar competition. Despite being smaller, he was a better after contact runner against college competition.
I’m not taking away anything from Barkley, he has a unique skill set but once he gets to the NFL he will not be a 20-25 carry per game running back. On the other hand, he will be a 20-25 touches per game player. That will include runs, receptions and returns. In that role he can be very productive.
As a rookie in the NFL McCaffrey has been excellent as a receiver with 57 receptions for 433 yards and three touchdowns. As a runner he has been very average with just 206 total yards and a 3.0 yards per carry average.
Where does Barkley get drafted? Good question. McCaffrey was the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft. I would think that Barkley could get drafted in the same area. That said, every draft is different and the needs of the clubs picking in the top 10 come into play. I don’t see Barkley being a special runner in the NFL but I do see him being a very productive all-purpose back who will be a valuable addition to the team that drafts him.