clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rookie contract hero: Is Saquon Barkley gonna be worth it for the Giants?

Barkley is on pace for a historic rookie season — so what’s that worth to New York?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The Giants approached a crossroad before the 2018 NFL Draft. New York had just completed its worst season since 1974 and had fired head coach Ben McAdoo. Major questions surrounded the team’s roster.

Eli Manning just turned 37 years old and, while functional, no longer a Pro Bowl-level passer. Odell Beckham Jr. developed into a consistent All-Pro presence in North Jersey, but now he was angling for the most expensive contract ever given to a wide receiver. Holes plagued both the offensive and defensive lines, as well as the secondary and the backfield.

But the Giants also had one major asset to jump-start their rebuild: the No. 2 overall pick. With that, the club had its choice of top quarterback prospects — and the leverage to slide back in a passer-filled draft and pick up a multitude of valuable selections alongside the Jets’ No. 6 overall pick. Instead, they addressed a problem that hasn’t had an above-average solution since Ahmad Bradshaw was bowling over defenders, and they made Penn State star Saquon Barkley the highest drafted running back since 2006.

It was a bold decision. The good news is that Barkley has looked like a worthy choice and is emerging as one of the league’s bright young stars. The bad news is he hasn’t been enough to overcome a depleted roster as the Giants stumbled to a 1-5 start.

With 2018 looking like a lost season, New York will have to build its future around Beckham — who since signed his record-setting extension — and young players like Barkley, Evan Engram, Landon Collins, and Dalvin Tomlinson. But can a young, versatile tailback really be enough to turn the Giants around?

Barkley has the perfect skill set for a modern running back

The league’s top tailbacks aren’t just runners; they’re hybrid weapons built from the wreckage of an exploded Marshall Faulk. The league’s top-paid runner, Todd Gurley, had 2,093 total yards last season — 1,305 on the ground and 788 through the air. He’s currently on pace for an even better year in 2018.

Le’Veon Bell, the man who wants to be the league’s next top-paid back, based his contract demands on being paid like a No. 1 running back and a No. 2 wide receiver thanks to the value he brings as a pass catcher. Melvin Gordon’s breakout 2018 has been predicated on his rise as a receiving threat from the backfield.

Barkley fits that mold and may even create a new one by the time he’s done. The former Penn State star has been impactful in every phase of the game as a pro. In his first year in the league, he’s on track for more than 2,100 yards from scrimmage, rushing for more than five yards per carry and establishing himself the No. 2 option on Manning’s target tree, trailing only Beckham. If he can keep this pace, he’s got a shot at being just the third player in league history to record 1,000-plus rushing yards and 1,000-plus receiving yards in the same season.

And, as his collegiate career shows, he’s also an accomplished returner — should new head coach Pat Shurmur come to his senses and decide to wrest punt duties away from Beckham.

But a deficient offensive line is highlighting his weaknesses

The knock on Barkley’s first five games as a pro has been a lack of consistency. Ineffective blocking left him crashing into a turgid line of scrimmage, sticking him with small gains and leaving the Giants’ offense struggling for answers. Some big gains late in games have helped boost his yardage stats, but if his numbers are padded by breakout runs late in games that have already been decided, what’s his actual value?

This is a fair criticism; before Week 6’s breakout, 64.8 percent of Barkley’s runs had resulted in three yards or fewer. But 14 percent went for double-digit yardage, and five of his 71 carries went for 20-plus yards, pushing his average to 4.3 yards per rush. His breakout game in a Thursday night matchup against the Eagles helped stabilize those numbers — even if he’s not on the same level as the league’s top tailbacks in 2018. He’s getting shut down at the line of scrimmage significantly more often than the five runners who currently have rushed for more yards than him.

Saquon Barkley’s stuffed run rate vs. the NFL’s top 5 RBs (by yardage)

Player Runs of 3 yards or fewer
Player Runs of 3 yards or fewer
Saquon Barkley 53
Percent of all carries: 63.10%
James Conner 64
Percent: 62.14%
Ezekiel Elliott 65
Percent: 55.56%
Todd Gurley 64
Percent: 49.61%
Kareem Hunt 51
Percent: 49.51%
Melvin Gordon 45
Percent: 49.45%

The only top-five runner on Barkley’s level of getting stuffed is Conner, another young back who has suffered through growing pains in his first year as an RB1 this fall. But last week’s performance, in a game where the Philadelphia defense keyed on him as the game wore on, is encouraging. As is his level of play behind an offensive line that, despite the franchise’s best efforts, appears to be an elaborate practical joke on the tri-state metropolitan area.

Evidence of Barkley’s ability to break open-field tackles and churn up yardage have shone through his contributions in the passing game. His average reception comes just 2.1 yards from his own line of scrimmage, but he’s been able to take those swing, screen, and panicked Manning’s-about-to-get-crushed passes for an average of 9.3 yards per reception; only 2017 offensive rookie of the year Alvin Kamara has been better at gaining yards after the catch in 2018. pegs Barkley for 42 evaded tackles over the course of six games so far — a number that underlines just how much work he’s been doing in front of an offensive line that puts him at a disadvantage compared to his peers. Barkley may not live up to the entirety of his stat line thanks to a high number of plays that get blown up before they can even begin, but he’s frequently shown off the speed, power, and vision to be better. Like, “worthy of the No. 2 overall pick in a draft loaded with QB talent” better.

What’s Barkley going to cost the Giants in 2022?

The Giants have staked their rebuild on Barkley, and letting him leave would seriously damage that narrative. As a first-round pick, he’s locked in for four years at a low cost — and a fifth at a more expensive, but still below-market value team option for 2022.

Recent history suggests two ways this could shake out. New York can follow the Rams’ path and extend Barkley early like Los Angeles did with Todd Gurley. The Rams used the savings generated by Jared Goff’s rookie contract to fit a handful of big extensions under their salary cap, including deals for Aaron Donald, Brandin Cooks, and Rob Havenstein. Their deal with Gurley made him the league’s top-paid running back and will pay him an average of $14.375 million annually through 2023.

That’s a move the Giants could afford to make should Manning retire in 2019 or 2020. Turning the reins over to a quarterback on a rookie contract would create around $18 million in savings even if the new QB is the No. 1 overall pick. That’s money the club could invest elsewhere — like on a tailback who is addicted to big plays and a whole bunch of blockers to give him space.

Or, the Giants could follow the tack of another old-school franchise, the Steelers. Pittsburgh held on to Bell through his first four seasons thanks to a rookie contract signed after he was the team’s second-round pick in 2013. Bell far outplayed his paycheck during that period, but was unable to come to terms with the Steelers on a massive contract extension (the Steelers reportedly offered five years and $70 million, but Bell wanted $17M/per) to keep him in black and yellow. But rather than let him walk away, Pittsburgh hit him with the franchise tag, locking him in for another year and $12.12 million in 2017.

Bell responded with an All-Pro performance, which led the Steelers to .. .not budge on their original stance and tag him for a second straight year. The end result? Two years and, theoretically, $27.6 million eventually guaranteed for Bell after the four dirt-cheap years he’d already put in.

The benefit of that strategy is it has kept long-term costs down — Pittsburgh already owes big money to veterans like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, and somehow Joe Haden — and prevented a gamble on a running back who would be nearing age 30 three years into his extension. Bell’s total cost to the Steelers for six years of service was scheduled to only cost approximately $31 million before he left the team. That’s roughly the price of the first four years of Barkley’s rookie contract.

The glaring negative is that alienating a star player could result in a bridge-burning holdout that keeps him from the field in the middle of a tumultuous season.

With Barkley showing out, a cheaper-than-Manning quarterback on the horizon, and a possible “we turned down trade offers and invested the No. 2 pick on this guy, we’d better build around him” motivation creeping through the Giants’ offices, a big-money extension is a safe bet. While it might not happen before Barkley’s third year — a la Gurley — it could come in the summer of 2021, the year before his escalating fifth-year option.

The trouble with predicting what that could cost is the outright volatility of the tailback market. Running back is, by average salary, the lowest-paid non-special teams position on the field aside from fullback. In the past decade alone, we’ve seen top-heavy depth charts eschew the idea of the lead runner in favor of a multi-faceted platoon, only to turn back to clear-cut No. 1 guys in the case of truly special runners/receivers from the backfield.

It’s only been six games, but Barkley looks like the kind of guy who can take up residence in that Gurley/Bell tier. Come 2021, assuming he’s locked down a couple of 2,000 total yard seasons, the Giants could be looking at a five-year, $80-85 million deal with $30 million guaranteed to keep him in the northernmost reaches of New Jersey.

Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 6:

David Njoku, TE, Browns (55 receiving yards, one TD vs. Chargers)

Bradley Chubb, DE, Broncos (three sacks vs. Rams)

Melvin Gordon, RB, Chargers (132 rushing yards, three TDs vs. Browns)

Tyler Boyd, WR, Bengals (62 receiving yards, two TDs vs. Steelers)

Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jaguars (two sacks, four tackles vs. Cowboys)

Sony Michel, RB, Patriots (106 rushing yards, two TDs vs. Chiefs)

James Conner, RB, Steelers (111 rushing yards, two TDs vs. Bengals)

Previously in rookie contract heroes:

Week 1: Michael Thomas

Week 2: Matt Breida

Week 3: Myles Garrett

Week 4: Patrick Mahomes II, Tyreek Hill, and Kareem Hunt

Week 5: T.J. Watt