Saquon Barkley's Health Could Decide NFC East Race

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistSeptember 3, 2021

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the New England Patriots Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)
Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

On the same day that New York Giants star running back Saquon Barkley took hits in practice as he tries to complete a long recovery from a torn ACL, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported that the 24-year-old "has a strong chance to play Week 1" against the Denver Broncos

But around that same time Thursday, fellow Giants offensive centerpiece Kenny Golladay smartly pointed out to the media that the new-look Giants "might be a little slow to get off" as a result of the fact "guys have been in and out of the lineup."

As Barkley in particular gets reacclimated following nearly an entire year away from live football, even a short delay like that could be problematic considering that the NFC East is once again expected to be a multi-team toss-up. 

The Giants, who won just six games without Barkley in 2020, may need Golladay as well as pass-catchers Darius Slayton, Kadarius Toney, Evan Engram and Kyle Rudolph to remain healthy to post a winning record for the first time since 2016. All of those guys have been banged up at various points this summer. 

BEREA, OH - AUGUST 19: Running back Saquon Barkley #26 of the New York Giants runs a drill during a joint practice with the Cleveland Browns on August 19, 2021 in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
Diamond Images/Getty Images

But let's be real: For the G-Men to hang with the defensively stout Washington Football Team and the offensively stacked Dallas Cowboys in that division, Barkley will be the key. A bounce-back season from the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year could put Big Blue over the top, but it's just as easy to envision the team crashing and burning if he's not able to effectively contribute on a consistent basis for a third consecutive season. 

Barkley played in 13 games in 2019 but wasn't himself after suffering an ankle injury early in that campaign. Then, of course, he injured his knee almost immediately following a pandemic-derailed 2020 offseason. We really haven't seen him at his best since the first two games of his sophomore season, when he compiled 274 yards from scrimmage and averaged a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry before going down in Week 3. 

So it's been a while, but we're also talking about a long stretch during which the Penn State product was barely touched. Time spent rehabbing and grinding might not be tantamount to time spent training and preparing, but running back is a fragile position with a short shelf life. If Barkley can become and stay fully healthy in 2021, he could look and feel a lot more like a second-year player than a fourth-year player. 

And that matters, especially considering that promising start to 2019 and his utter dominance during a 2018 campaign in which he amassed a league-high 2,028 scrimmage yards and scored 15 touchdowns for a Giants team that won just five games. 

Derek Brown @DBro_FFB

Enjoy the dip on Saquon Barkley https://t.co/WkCniG9PFv

But if Barkley can return to that level in 2021, there's no way the Giants are settling for five or six wins. That 2018 team featured Eli Manning on his last legs, and an increasingly unreliable Odell Beckham Jr. was poorly supported by Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and...really nobody else. The offensive line was also rather horrendous outside of left tackle Nate Solder, who was by no means a pillar. 

The line might not be vaunted now either, but left tackle Andrew Thomas has superstar potential and there's plenty of young talent surrounding him. Quarterback Daniel Jones hasn't avoided the bust label yet but continues to have a high ceiling ahead of a critical third NFL season, and now he has his strongest receiving corps yet with Golladay, Toney, John Ross and Rudolph joining Slayton, Shepard and Engram. 

Jones, like Barkley, is just 24 years old. He's flashed at times in his first two seasons, but a lack of support, Barkley's absence, coaching changes and the dynamics associated with COVID-19 have to be factored in. Realistically, this is his first full and proper NFL offseason, and now there's more stability in the coaching staff, Solder is no longer a key piece but has returned from the COVID-19 opt-out list and—crucially—Barkley may be back as well. 

These Giants can and will score points with that offensive core led by Barkley, and a defense that in 2020 quietly ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average at Football Outsiders) should be stronger with exciting rookie second-round draft pick Azeez Ojulari and free-agent addition Adoree' Jackson joining established/potential standouts Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Xavier McKinney and James Bradberry. 

Art Stapleton @art_stapleton

Giants offense update: Saquon Barkley, Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Kadarius Toney and Kyle Rudolph all working in full pads during media viewing period.

In many other divisions, the Giants would still be a year away even if Barkley were to return to form. But New York almost won this thing without Barkley, Golladay, Toney, Ross, Solder, Rudolph, Ojulari and Jackson in 2020. They finished just a game back of the 7-9 WFT, who still lack accomplished offensive talent, and tied with the Cowboys, who aren't as strong as they used to be on offense and continue to possess a mediocre-at-best defense. 

If quarterback Dak Prescott gets back on track after losing much of 2020 to a serious ankle injury, the Cowboys may have an edge over even the Barkley-led Giants and the Chase Young-fueled WFT in the NFC East. But that's also an "if" and a "may" because the Cowboys' once-legendary offensive line isn't the same these days and Ezekiel Elliott might have peaked before Barkley was drafted. 

Because Washington is more dependent on its entire defensive unit and because the Philadelphia Eagles aren't expected to be a major factor during what looks to be a regrouping season, the NFL's most popular division will likely be decided by two particular performances in 2021: Prescott's and Barkley's. 

But Prescott is more of a certainty, and he's delivered more consistently throughout his career in Dallas. If Barkley can't rediscover that magic from 2018, the Giants won't likely keep up with Dallas or Washington and the NFC East will be significantly more predictable. 


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.