The Case For Saquon Barkley As A First Rounder


By Brian Mackowick (@BMaaaaac)

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Saquon Barkley, the New York Giants’ running back selected 2nd overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, has nothing but opportunity awaiting him in the Big Apple. The 2016 and 2017 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Barkley should have the backfield all to himself on a team that should improve on last year if they can manage to contain the injury bug this season.

A Brief Summary of the New York Giants’ Backfield

The New York Giants had the most pass attempts in the NFL for the 2017 season at 608. The team’s rushing attempts, however, ranked just 25th with a total of 394 according to Pro Football Reference (@PFREF). Orleans Darkwa was the team’s best runner last year with a 171/754/5 line for a respectable average of 4.39 yards-per-carry (ypc). However, while it seemed he had control of the backfield mid-season after averaging 5.12ypc through his first eight games, Wayne Gallman began stealing carries late as Darkwa faltered. Darkwa managed a paltry 2.6ypc from weeks 10-15 before exploding in the final game of the season with a 20/154/1 line. With the team back to full health, and with the addition of Barkley, we should see the Giants’ game-script improve over 2017 which may result in a much more balanced attack from a passing/rushing play-call perspective.

Heading into the 2018 season, the Giants added Jonathan Stewart (guaranteed $3.45 million) in free agency and landed Saquon Barkley in the draft. If you are concerned Stewart may put a dent in Barkley’s workload, you shouldn’t be. The NFL Free Agency period began on March 14th this year, while the NFL Draft began on April 26th.

In my mind, the Stewart signing was simply insurance. The Giants had no guarantee Barkley would be there at the 2nd pick given the offseason rumblings that the Browns were also interested in the top running-back prospect in years. As soon as Barkley became available to the Giants at #2, Stewart’s stock dropped to zero for me. Sure, Stewart may see the field here and there to spell Barkley, and the occasional goal-line carry is possible no doubt, but in the grand scheme of things Barkley is the guy and it’s not close. Stewart is nothing more than a 31-year-old handcuff.

The Future is Bright for Saquon Barkley: 400 Touches in 2018?

Of the Giants’ 394 rushing attempts last season, 368 of those were divided between Orleans Darkwa, Wayne Gallman, Shane Vereen and Paul Perkins. Additionally, that same group saw a total of 139 targets from Eli Manning. Orleans Darkwa remains a free agent, Shane Vereen signed with the Saints, and Paul Perkins was waived back in May.

With just Wayne Gallman and Jonathan Stewart competing with Saquon Barkley, it’s not unreasonable to imagine Barkley touching the ball nearly 400 times in 2018. As a point of reference, only two running backs have crossed the 400-touch mark in the last five NFL seasons: Le’Veon Bell in 2017 and DeMarco Murray in 2014. Both finished as the RB2 in PPR scoring in those seasons. Furthermore, of the nine running backs that reached 350+ touches in the last five seasons, none finished worse than RB3.

Over the last three seasons, four of five running backs drafted in the first round have posted a top-10 fantasy finish in PPR formats (see the table below for further detail). The four RBs to accomplish this feat include Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey (2017), Ezekiel Elliott (2016), and Todd Gurley (2015). Melvin Gordon was the lone RB drafted in the first round to not crack the top-10 in his rookie year in that time span. In addition to this group, three other RBs drafted after the first round also produced similarly successful rookie numbers: Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt (2017), and David Johnson (2015). The average number of touches for these seven runners in their rookie seasons was 256 with Zeke having the highest at 354 and David Johnson the lowest at just 161.

Projecting Saquon Barkley’s Potential

While I understand there are arguments against this logic, I wanted to determine Barkley’s potential output under the assumption he performs at a pace in-line with the averages of the seven RBs mentioned above. Utilizing data from the rookie seasons of Fournette, McCaffrey, Hunt, Kamara, Elliott, Gurley and Johnson, I come to the following averages:

  • Yards/Rush:    4.73
  • TD/Rush %:     4.3%
  • Yards/Rec.:      9.76
  • TD/Rec. %:       5.0%
  • Catch %:            76.7%

Operating under the assumption of 250 carries and 80 targets, both potentially conservative estimates, the potential totals for Barkley in a PPR scoring format are as follows:

  • Rush Yards:      1,182 (118.2 Fantasy Points)
  • Rush TDs:         11 (66 FPs)
  • Receptions:      61 (61 FPs)
  • Yards:                595 (59.5 FPs)
  • Rec TDs:           3 (18 FPs)

The resulting total is 322.7 fantasy points which would have placed Barkley 3rd at the position for 2017. However, due to some concerns with the Giants’ offensive line, and the possibility that Stewart and Gallman do in fact see more work than I would anticipate, it is fair to adjust the projected totals to reflect that:

  • 10% reduction = 290.4 FPs, 5th in 2017 at RB
  • 20% reduction = 258.2 FPs, 8th
  • 30% reduction = 225.9 FPs, 11th

The clear path to a heavy workload combined with the talent we know Barkley possesses tells me Barkley is in for a huge season. I personally do not see Stewart as a threat to early-down work. While Gallman may see some third-down work, we know Barkley is more than capable in that department as well (102/1,195/8 line in his three seasons at Penn State). Overall, I think Barkley will dominate touches for the Giants this year and will dominate the fantasy football season as well. Draft Barkley in the first round of your redraft leagues and feel confident about it. I know I will!

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Brian Mackowick