When running back Saquon Barkley was drafted in 2018, the level of excitement and anticipation from Giants fans everywhere was soaring through the atmosphere. Thinking about the immediate impact of such a remarkable athlete at the time, without even realizing just what kind of Rookie Year Barkley was about to have, was hard to fathom.
The hype was real. To see such a complete skillset comprised of not only extraordinary speed and acceleration but also outstanding agility, balance and deadly jump cuts, Barkley was as good as advertised and delivered an impressive performance that reincarnated visions of his childhood idol and NFL Legend, Barry Sanders. Barkley’s versatility led him to run all over the league and claim the Rookie of the Year Award in 2018, rushing for 1,307 yards with 11 TDs and an average of 5.0 yards per carry (ESPN). Along with this incredible feat on the ground, Barkley also reeled in 91 receptions with over 700 receiving yards and 4 TDs on the season, showing everyone why he is more than just a running back (ESPN).
But in 2019, that all changed. After coming out of the gates hot with back-to-back games where he rushed for over 100+ yards in weeks 1 and 2, Barkley was dealt a painful ankle injury against Tampa Bay that sidelined him for three weeks (ESPN). During his young NFL career, Barkley never had a setback like this. And despite posting a good outing against Arizona his first week back, this injury took a big shot towards Barkley’s run confidence, particularly as he began to face better and better run defenses as the season progressed (ESPN). In fact, if you look at his game log, you can see that between weeks 8 and 12 against the Lions, Cowboys, Jets, and Bears, Barkley couldn’t get anything going and was often held to short gains (ESPN). Although he was able to stay relevant to an extent on a receiving level during this four-game stretch, Barkley just wasn’t the same running back from 2018 (ESPN).
However, to be fair, Barkley’s not entirely to blame for his struggles last season. The success of a running back is dependent on a strong offensive line whose job is not only to create the necessary lanes for the runner to surge through but is also required to make big blocks downfield. Although the Giants have some good guards in Kevin Zeitler and Will Hernandez, they haven’t had the same success with both their tackles and their centers, and Barkley really felt that impact last season (ESPN). With Jon Halapio starting at center and Nate Solder and Mike Remmers starting at left and right tackle, opposing defensive lines would overpower and outmatch these three linemen time and again, frequently exposing the vulnerability of both the outside and the inside of their formation. As a result, Barkley was repeatedly flooded by defenders on a variety of his attempts and had a tough time establishing any sort of rhythm, especially towards the second half of the season. To give you an idea of how important an offensive line is, just look at Ezekiel Elliot’s Rookie Year in 2016, where he rushed for 1,631 yards, 15 TDs and averaged 5.1 yards per carry (ESPN). This success was a result of not only his talent but in addition, was largely due to the fact that the Cowboys had one of the best offensive lines in the league, led by All-Pro Zach Martin, Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith (ESPN).
Nonetheless, Barkley somehow still managed to finish the year on a high note and put up solid numbers. Rushing just over 1,000 yards along with 6 TDs, Barkley also averaged 4.6 yards per carry and had four games where he ran for 100+ yards on the day (ESPN). This includes the second to last game of the season, where Barkley put up a career-high 189 yards on 22 carries against Washington to seal the overtime victory (ESPN).
Upon seeing his stats, it’s easy to conclude that 2019 was a typical “sophomore slump” season for Saquon Barkley, and technically, there is an argument there to be had. But at the same time, if you take a moment to consider a) what sort of talent Barkley had around him (from his new rookie quarterback to his fellow wide receivers who were on and off with injuries) and b) the offensive line he had in front of him, Barkley’s numbers actually reveal a bigger picture. Essentially, Barkley made something out of nothing. And in the process, he displayed how incredibly resilient he can be; that even when he doesn’t have the best supporting cast, he’ll find a way to produce. The good news for Barkley is that the Giants have been focusing on constructing a durable offensive line for both him and their young quarterback Daniel Jones. And this major development may be coming to a close sooner than you think.
With the Giants signing three big defensive acquisitions during free agency, they could use their 4th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to select a really good offensive lineman (ESPN). That being said, this remains to be a bit of a long shot because the Giants still have a bunch of holes to fill on both sides of the ball and haven’t made it clear what position they are leaning towards for their first-round pick. However, the Giants just spent plenty of cash to rejuvenate their defense, and it certainly makes you wonder if they’ll take a leap of faith with an offensive lineman come April 23rd, something they haven’t dared to do since 2015 (no Giants fan will ever forget how big of a flop Ereck Flowers was…).
Nevertheless, whether they draft an offensive lineman or not, it’s important to remember that Barkley is only 23 years old and is entering the prime of his youth and athleticism. His explosiveness, speed, strength, balance, and agility remain to be unparalleled in the NFL. But despite the fact that he’s a physical phenom of an athlete, what remains to be one of Barkley’s most exciting skills, is his vision and creativity. His awareness level is impeccable and his ability to swerve and squirm away from defenders with a spin move or a sharp juke or a hurdling leap is what makes him so exciting to watch. When you have the ball in your hands as a running back, you do not want to be predictable, and Barkley has exemplified this approach and continues to excel at it. With all the talent and creativity at his disposal, Barkley has shown everyone that he’s destined to shine. This is only the beginning; and you can best believe that Saquon Barkley will legitimize the start of his legacy by kicking off the decade with a big-time, bounce-back season in 2020.