Is Saquon Barkley Really a Generational RB Talent?April 13, 2018
The 2018 draft class is fascinating for a number of reasons. As many as five quarterbacks could go in the first round, and there's a surplus of talent at other positions. With question marks attached to all those quarterbacks, there's a race for the title of "best player in the draft" outside the game's most important position.
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is one of those players thought by many to be the best pure football talent in this class. In three years as a starter for the Nittany Lions, he gained 3,843 rushing yards and scored 43 touchdowns on 671 carries. He also caught 102 passes for 1,195 yards and eight touchdowns, and added 18 kickoff returns for 500 yards and two touchdowns.
Barkley's positional versatility is singularly impressive among the running backs in this class, and it would be the same in most draft classes. He can run inside and outside with tremendous speed, lateral agility and acceleration. As a receiver, he can line up anywhere from offset in a Pistol formation to the slot to outside—he has the potential to be the NFL's best receiving back since Le'Veon Bell rounded out his skill set. As a direct-snap running quarterback who finds himself behind the center from pre-snap movement, Barkley can also create explosive plays. It's easy to see why some would tout him as a truly great back, and in many aspects of his play, he is just that.
Bert Whigham, who has been training Barkley this year at Tom Shaw Performance in Florida, set the bar fairly high regarding his client's professional prospects, comparing him to another player Whigham has trained.
"The only person I can think of that's comparable physically is [Oakland Raiders linebacker] Khalil Mack," Whigham told Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News. "Khalil and Saquon are my 1a. and 1b. These two guys are outliers. They're freaks. It's those two and then probably [Tennessee Titans running back] Derrick Henry, another freak. But with Khalil, we knew he was the No. 1 overall pick. We knew he was going to be special. And it's the same with Saquon. You've got a generational talent."
And that's where things get interesting. There's no question Barkley looks like an ideal running back for the modern NFL. Now, teams want players who can not only stay on the field for all three downs, but as every down is potentially a passing down and versatility is the order of the day, players like Barkley (and there aren't too many of them) can fit in multiple offenses to the point where he could be called scheme-transcendent.
But a generational talent? At that point, you want to see a guy who can bring a defense to its knees in just about any way possible. And for all of Barkley's skills, the one thing holding him back—and this could be a more pronounced issue in the NFL—is that he struggles to run with power after contact between the tackles.
Some statistics seem to contradict this idea. Per Pro Football Focus, Barkley ranked 19th among all qualifying collegiate running backs in 2017 with 3.45 yards per carry after contact. He also ranked third in PFF's Breakaway Percentage metric—55.6 percent of his total yards came on runs of 15 yards or more. As is usually the case, merging stats and tape is instructive.
The yards-after-contact aspect of Barkley's game is especially interesting when you watch his tape. As long as Barkley gets a definitive early read on where his potential gaps are going to be, he's decisive and quick to meet them. And in this context as a runner, he builds up a full head of steam quickly enough to blast through any tackle attempts from defenders who are trying to get around blocks or just arriving to the play.
It's when his options are less clear that Barkley really struggles. If he can bounce outside from a closed gap, he's fast enough to create yardage out of what might otherwise be a busted play. But he doesn't seem to have an inherent ability to move interior tacklers as a true power back would. This is far from a liability if an offense utilizes him properly, but if we're talking about "generational talents," I would like to see Barkley run with more pure power in ways that would transcend the efforts of his offensive line.
Breakaway Percentage is also revealing on a couple of levels. Barkley is absolutely a home run hitter, capable of taking any play to the house, but he also finds himself involved in a number of negative plays.
PFF also took a statistical look at Barkley's ability to break contact at or behind the line of scrimmage and found that he averaged 0.46 yards per carry in those instances. He was also hit at or behind the line on 44.5 percent of his carries, a very high rate.
Based on my observations, this is the cause of Barkley's boom-or-bust style—the disconnect between his unreal athleticism and his frustrating inability to push the pile as you'd want a true power back to do.
Where you most likely want Barkley in your offense is as an outside runner, where he can use his impressive acceleration and lateral balance to create in open space. This run against Washington in the Fiesta Bowl is a perfect example. Barkley is met by some contact, but he's able to find some room and the results are as impressive as anything you'd see from the top NFL backs today.
This long touchdown carry against the Huskies further demonstrates Barkley's ability to get on a track and simply outrun anybody in his vicinity. If you're a step or more away from him, you're probably out of luck.
Barkley gained 137 yards and scored two rushing touchdowns on 18 carries against the Huskies—it was one of the most impressive performances of his collegiate career against a top-flight defense. Against Ohio State's excellent defense earlier in the season, Barkley found it to be tough sledding, as most backs do—he rushed 21 times for 44 yards and a touchdown, but as the Buckeyes consistently plugged things up inside and dealt with Barkley's outside speed, it was hard for him to do much.
The lone exception on the ground was this 36-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter—again, watch how Barkley combines acceleration and patience to explode into a scoring position when he has a pathway in front of him.
Of course, the downside to that one big run is what it says about the rest of Barkley's game against Ohio State—on his other 20 rushing attempts, he gained a combined eight yards against a defense that knew how to shut him down. And you can see on this run for a loss that Barkley didn't really have an answer in power situations—here, he literally runs himself in a circle, out of the play.
So, unless he develops the mentality that gives him a greater ability to read power runs and capitalize on these situations—and at 6'0", 233 pounds, he should be able to—he's going to be more of a home run guy as opposed to a drive sustainer, especially against NFL defenses that will exacerbate his power problem. What mitigates that is everything he can do outside the box—Barkley also returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against Ohio State, and this touchdown catch against Michigan shows his potential as a receiver.
From the right slot, he fakes linebacker Mike McCray (No. 9) out of the route and scores after bobbling the ball. This is a running back you can put all over the field as a receiver, which is a tremendous attribute in empty-back sets and pre-snap looks in which he would move from the backfield to the formation.
However, is Saquon Barkley a "generational talent"? I love what he can bring to the field, and in the right system, he'll be a difference-maker in the Kareem Hunt/Alvin Kamara mold. The most obvious pro comparison is LeSean McCoy in terms of Barkley's speed and shiftiness, and ability to catch the ball in multiple concepts. McCoy is one of the best backs of his generation because he's been with teams that have used his skills correctly and avoided situations where he's forced to do things he doesn't do well. You don't want McCoy trying to get you three yards against eight in the box on 3rd-and-short over and over, but if you need a 60-yard blazer for a touchdown, there are few better in recent years.
Still, I'd pump the brakes on the "generational" label. In truth, Barkley may not even end up as the best running back in this draft class. If LSU's Derrius Guice returns to his pre-injury form in 2016, when he showed nearly equivalent speed and far better ability to move through defenders in power situations, he might prove to be more valuable. Guice doesn't have Barkley's receiving chops—no back in this class does—but Guice has the more polished skill set as a pure running back. And Barkley's inconsistency on those big plays is cause for concern if his future team doesn't have a fundamentally sound and potentially dominant offensive line.
If Saquon Barkley can fill in the one blank color in his palette, he may indeed move up to generational status. Right now, he'll have to be content with the potential to define an NFL offense for the next few seasons. That's not a bad outlook, but he could be even better.