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Running back review: Can Giants avoid turning Saquon Barkley into Barry Sanders?

Saquon Barkley is everything the New York Giants thought he would be when they selected him second overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. Maybe more. Question is, will the Giants ever really be good enough to make that matter?

Let’s discuss that as we review the running back position as part of our season-ending 2018 position-by-position reviews.

2018 review

Let’s see if we can list Saquon Barkley’s accomplishments.

  • No. 1 in the NFL in yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards (2,028)
  • Became just the third rookie in NFL history to surpass 2,000 yards from scrimmage
  • No. 2 in the NFL in rushing yards (1,307)
  • Set the rookie record for catches by a running back (91)

Barkley also re-wrote the Giants’ rookie record book

  • His 91 catches ties the rookie record Odell Beckham Jr. set in 2014
  • His 1,307 yards set the franchise rookie rushing record
  • His 15 touchdowns set a franchise rookie record, as did his 11 rushing scores

There are maybe a zillion Barkley highlight videos out there. Barkley’s highlights set to the music from ‘Space Jam’ is maybe the best thing ever.

As NFL analyst Brian Baldinger said in putting together his own Barkley highlight reel “What a year by Saquon Barkley!” The ever-quotable Baldinger also said “Trying to stop Saquon is like squeezing Jell-O.”

And yet …

And yet the 2018 season felt like one in which the Giants didn’t get everything they could have gotten out of Barkley. Dan Pizzuta took an in-depth look at Barkley on Thursday, and some of what you are about to read is similar to what Dan wrote. Shoot, some of it is borrowed from what Dan wrote. For what it’s worth, I swear that the timing of Dan’s piece and mine are purely coincidental.

  • Per proprietary data from SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, the Giants were the most explosive rushing team in the NFL. Yet, they were one of the least efficient, 30th in that category. Thirty-four of Barkley’s 261 runs (an amazing 13 percent) went for negative yardage.
  • Football Outsiders ranked Barkley 15th in the league in DYAR (Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and 40th in the league in running back efficiency with just a 41 percent success rate.

Mostly, that tells us that the Giants didn’t block very well for Barkley. That’s confirmed by Football Outsiders ranking the Giants’ offensive line 29th in Adjusted Line Yards, a measure of the ineffectiveness of the team’s run blocking.

The Giants weren’t very efficient throwing the ball to Barkley, either.

  • Just 34.1 percent of Barkley’s receptions went for a first down, 17th among 29 running backs with at least 40 targets.
  • Six of Barkley’s receptions resulted in lost yardage.
  • Fifteen running backs averaged more than Barkley’s 7.9 yards per catch.

Perhaps Barkley’s 91 catches were more an indication of the dysfunction in the Giants’ offense, especially in the first eight games when he caught 58 passes, than anything else.

  • Finally, there is this. The Giants went 5-11. No matter how you slice it, they weren’t very good.

The Giants still need a long-term solution at quarterback. They need offensive line help. They need a defense. Until they get those things Barkley might be destined to be Barry Sanders — a human highlight reel on a bad football team.

There were other running backs on the roster in 2018.

  • Wayne Gallman didn’t get a lot of opportunities behind Barkley (51 carries, 176 yards, 3.5 yards per carry; 14 receptions, 89 yards).
  • Jonathan Stewart had just six carries for 17 yards before heading to IR with a foot injury.
  • Fullback Elijhaa Penny was plucked off the Arizona Cardinals practice squad early in the year and did a nice job in limited snaps.

2019 look ahead

We know what Barkley is going to be in 2019 and beyond, provided he remains healthy. A great player. A phenomenon. A highlight waiting to happen. Can’t miss TV. A breathtaking moment possible every time he touches the ball.

We also know none of that matters unless the Giants fix all of the issues around him. Can they get a quarterback of the future who can give them a chance to win championships? Can they fix the offensive line to help Barkley be not only explosive, but efficient? Can they build a defense?

Barkley as Sanders is not something anyone who cares about the Giants wants. Can they avoid sentencing him to that fate?

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