Overcoming the Curse of Ki-Jana? Saquon Barkley Has Teams Talking About Top Pick

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterMarch 2, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 02: Penn State running back Saquon Barkley looks on during the 2018 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 2, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS — To say that NFL teams were amazed by Penn State running back Saquon Barkley in their meetings with him this week at the scouting combine would be an understatement. Several officials told Bleacher Report that Barkley was polite, genuine and intelligent. One called him a "true pleasure to speak to."

But that was in interviews. Players can be coached to do well in that universe. What's impossible to teach is raw, physical talent.        

Barkley ran a 4.40 40-yard dash at the combine Friday, the second-best time posted and startlingly fast for a 233-pound human. Earlier in the day, he had a 41-inch vertical leap. On the bench press, he had 29 reps at 225 pounds. Barkley is so strong that Superman asked him for a spot.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

It's one thing for a player to have a great combine. Lots have done that and gone on to flop in the NFL (cough, Johnny Manziel, cough).

It's different, though, when a player has a spectacular combine, is seen as a class act and oh, by the way, already has some of the best game tape of any prospect in this year's draft.

Combine all of those things, and you get someone who will shake up the draft.

How much of a shake-up? Barkley still likely won't go first overall. That will be a quarterback. I can tell you, though, that for the first time in a long time, there's chatter from teams about a running back going that high. That's not to say the Browns, current owners of the top pick, are considering it. But there's enough interest in Barkley that at least a few teams are talking about moving into the spot to take him.

That's what I'm hearing (and this is my usual caution that all teams lie this time of year). Teams are now officially in love with Barkley, so much so that one could make him the first running back to be the top pick since Ki-Jana Carter in 1995.

It's easy to understand why. As the NFL's research arm points out, Barkley is stronger than Joe Thomas, quicker than DeSean Jackson, faster than Devin Hester and jumps higher than Julio Jones

NFL Research @NFLResearch

Penn State RB Saquon Barkley at 2018 Combine: - Stronger than Joe Thomas - Quicker than DeSean Jackson - Faster than Devin Hester - Jumps higher than Julio Jones @PennStateFball https://t.co/usgR6vJvOn

And to add to all of this, Browns general manager John Dorsey said this week his team is open to trading out of that top spot. Sounding a little bit like Beyonce, he said, "Give me a call and see what's up."

If Barkley doesn't go first? Don't the Giants have to consider taking him at the second spot and using him to help extend the career of Eli Manning—as New Orleans has for Drew Brees with Alvin Kamara?

What helps Barkley in all this is that the top quarterbacks this year have significant flaws. It's the NFL, so again, a quarterback will probably get drafted with the top pick. But there is no groundbreaking player at that position in this draft, and that will play a factor in the Barkley sweepstakes.

Also, the NFL is returning to the time when backs had much more clout. It's still a quarterback league, but runners have been making a slow comeback.

"The bottom line is, is the guy a football player?" Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said this week. "This whole myth of devaluing running backs, I find it kind of comical. At the end of the day, if he's a great player, he's a great player. It doesn't matter what position it is. But the other thing, sometimes, listening to (coach Pat Shurmur), sometimes I think it gets lost in the sauce that football is the ultimate team game. You blow a whistle, and 11 guys have to go out there, both offense and defense and special teams.

"Everybody has to understand that every player is important. That's why when you are looking at the second pick in the draft like we are, the first thing we have to determine is: Is this guy worthy of being the second pick of any draft? Not just this year's draft, but also any draft? And then you make that determination, and you move forward. Position? If he's a great player, I don't care how stacked we are at that position; we're taking him. It's all about accumulating talent."

Chris Knight/Associated Press

Really, the only thing hurting Barkley is the curse of Ki-Jana.

Carter was taken first overall by the Bengals. In a five-year span, beginning with his rookie year, Carter tore his ACL, tore his rotator cuff, broke his wrist and dislocated his kneecap.

He had just 14 starts for three different teams.

It also won't help Barkley that Carter went to Penn State.

The putridity of that pick, the fact you can get excellent runners in later rounds (Kamara was a third-rounder) and the hyperdevelopment of the passing game have stifled talk for decades of a running back going first overall.     

But Barkley is going to seriously challenge all of that.

He's that good.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.