Saquon Barkley knows how you probably describe is running style and he’d like that to change.
“I don’t think my play is boom or bust,” he told Big Blue View at a Visa Financial Football event aimed to teach high school students money management skills. “I think that I’m a guy who could make an explosive play happen at any moment. I think you could make that argument in college, but so far in the NFL, it’s not like I’m back there dancing around — running this way, running that way. I’m not doing that. I’m taking what the defense gives me, trying to move the sticks.”
Barkley is correct to an extent. So far in the NFL, he’s not dancing. Per Next Gen Stats, Barkley has averaged 3.51 yards run per positive yard gained. That’s the 11th-best among 48 running backs with at least 35 carries. On some runs, he’s taking what the defense gives him but to this point, it hasn’t been much. Through six weeks of his rookie season, Barkley is sixth in rushing yards with 438 — 261 of which (59.6 percent) of which have come after contact, per Sports Info Solutions.
Per Football Outsiders, the Giants rank 32nd in adjusted line yards, which gives rushing credit to the amount that’s blocked by the offensive line, but they also rank first in open field yards, which measures the percentage of runs that gain 10 or more yards, which gets credited to the running back.
Because of this discrepancy between the quality of the line and the quality of the back, 27.6 percent of Barkley’s run this season have gone for zero or fewer yards while 13.8 percent have gone for 10 yards or more. It’s part of the reason why the Giants are 32nd in rushing marginal efficiency (play-to-play success) but first in rushing marginal explosiveness (big play potential).
But Barkley’s boom has outweighed the negative runs to this point. It’s why he ranks second in Football Outsiders’ Defensive-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR, a counting stat) and third in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA, an efficiency stat), despite ranking 30th among 37 qualified running backs in success rate.
So how does a back keep fighting through the runs when he can’t do anything, knowing he can break free at any time?
“I think that’s where I’ve improved,” Barkley said. “I think a perfect example is the Jacksonville game. We weren’t really getting anything going in the running game and I remember just saying to myself ‘stay patient, stay with it, take what they give you. You have the talent to split it at any moment’ and I was able to split a 68-yarder at a crucial time in the game.”
The Giants had 19 rushing attempts against the Jaguars just past the 11-minute mark in the fourth quarter, two of which had gone for more than five yards. But Barkley got the ball on a 2nd and 2 and took it 68 yards for a touchdown. By Win Probability Added, it was the second-biggest single play of that game.
There hasn’t really been an adjustment period, either. So far the speed of the game hasn’t scared the rookie.
“Everyone says the speed is different [from the college game],” Barkley said. “I don’t necessarily agree with that from my case. People told me I couldn’t bounce it and beat them with my speed — I’ve been able to do that so far.”
While the physical speed of the competition hasn’t jumped out at Barkley, the mental speed has.
“It’s how smart defensive players are,” Barkley said of the biggest difference from college. “It’s just now, everyone knows where they need to be. You’ve got guys like Luke Kuechly and Sean Lee who are able to call out some of your plays before you even run a play because they’re so in-tuned with watching film and studying the game. They’re pros. That’s the difference.”
Even with the increased quality of competition, Barkley knew he belonged immediately.
“I always believed in myself and had the confidence I could do that,” Barkley said when asked when he first knew he could break a big run at the NFL level. “But I guess you could say it solidified my first carry of the preseason.”
His first carry came in a preseason Week 1 game against the Cleveland Browns. On the Giants’ opening play from scrimmage, Barkley took a handoff, started up the middle, and cut to the outside for a gain of 39 yards.
What truly makes Barkley dangerous and a player considered as the best overall in this past April’s draft is his receiving ability — through six weeks he leads all running backs with 373 receiving yards. How valuable Barkley becomes as a player could have more to do with what he does as a receiver than a runner — by Expected Points Added, Barkley’s contributions have been significantly more positive through the air (0.28 EPA per play) than on the ground (minus-0.01 EPA per play).
That receiving production has also come with a less than ideal route chart for the back. Through this point in the season, Barkley’s main role has been that of a check down option, instead of a back who can run some of the same routes receivers do. Only four of Barkley’s 51 targets (7.8 percent) have come from the slot or outside, per Sports Info Solutions. Compare that to other similar backs like Todd Gurley (11-of-30, 36.7 percent), Alvin Kamara (12-of-51, 23.5 percent), and Christian McCaffrey (9-of-40, 22.5 percent). Even David Johnson, who has been vastly misused under a new coaching staff in Arizona has been in the slot or outside on five of his 27 targets (18.5 percent).
A more diverse route tree and spread of where those routes come from would only help the player and the offense. The increased receiving workload isn’t something new to Barkley, nor is it something he’ll shy away from embracing.
“My mindset is to try to be an all-around player,” Barkley said. “Any point in the game, being able to make a play for my team, whether it’s catching the ball or running the ball. I feel comfortable lining up wide, I feel comfortable lining up in the slot, in the backfield. I feel comfortable blocking, which I can also grow in that area of my game. But I do feel comfortable in all those things and whatever the teams needs me to do.”
With the way the Giants’ season has started, the team has needed him to do a lot. And to this point, Barkley has been everything the Giants could have expected.