As I sit here just after 11 a.m. on a very “July” Saturday morning, I realize that I probably should be doing something constructive. Something like going to the pool or playing video games.
Hey, those robot dinosaurs aren’t going to hunt themselves, right?
But instead, here I am, goofing off and writing about the New York Giants and Saquon Barkley.
A significant portion of our off-season coverage has been devoted to analyzing how Barkley could make the Giants better. We’ve talked about how his elite athleticism could make the offensive line look better, how his ability to turn slivers of daylight into chunk plays and stand up in pass protection could make Eli Manning’s and Odell Beckham’s lives easier. We’ve talked about how Barkley improving the running game (and subsequently the offense as a whole) could help the defense by letting them rest and putting pressure on opposing offenses.
One thing we haven’t really done is to ask whether the Giants can make Barkley a better player.
I’ve said this before, but it is hard to not wax poetic about Barkley. He is, by all accounts, a phenomenal young man who always makes a conscious effort to out-work everyone else and do things the right way. He has legitimately rare athletic traits with a blend of size, speed, agility, explosive power, and flexibility that you just don’t see, and he puts them to use as a multi-dimensional threat on the field.
I don’t want to heap unrealistic expectations on the young man, but seeing plays like this, it’s hard not to compare him to players like Marshall Faulk or LaDainian Tomlinson.
Most running backs can’t do that. Players like LeSean McCoy or Christian McCaffrey could make that first jump cut, then string together the subsequent ones, and have the speed to get the edge. But a player weighing in at 230 pounds? Nah, pretty much every guy with Barkley’s size and build is going to lower his shoulder and try to take Josey Jewell head-on.
But the fact that Barkley had such spectacular success on plays like this belies the biggest weakness in his game.
That is, that too often he tries to make plays like this, tries too hard to make something out of nothing, and fails. When he does so, the offense can't settle for a modest gain, or even to live to play another down.
Rather than settling for what the defense gives him, Barkley will -- sometimes too often -- refuse to give up and start to improvise. It can result in spectacular gains, but it can also hurt the offense and take them right off schedule.
The question the Giants need to answer is whether or not they can help Barkley and make him better.
Part of the issue is, as Matt Waldman says in his breakdown of Barkley for the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, due to Barkley's decision making. In Waldman’s estimation, Barkley gets into trouble when he goes into a play without a plan and starts trying to beat the defense, player by player.
The Giants’ coaches can help with this, if they can get him to stay within the structure of the offense and take what is there. This isn’t to say he shouldn’t go off script on occasion, but sometimes situations (such as being inside the 20-yard lines) mean that taking the sure short gain is the smart play.
Paving the road
In some cases, Barkley had no choice but to go off-script.
Despite rushing for more than a thousand yards in each of his three seasons at Penn State, he did not have much of an offensive line. In that game against Ohio State, Barkley ran the ball 21 times, but first contact as made behind the line of scrimmage on 10 of those rushes.
The Giants completely rebuilt their offensive line this off-season, and if it comes together as they hope, he should — at least — be able to get to the line of scrimmage before defenders are able to get a hand on him.
While he isn't a great pass protector, Nate Solder has been a consistently good run blocker on the edge. Will Hernandez is an unknown at the NFL level, but his power and agility should let him compete in any blocking scheme. Even if the center right of the line tops out at average, that still constitutes an upgrade for Barkley.
Hernandez has “joked” (well... considering Hernandez’s personality, maybe “joke” is a bit generous) all off-season that he is Barkley’s bodyguard. That, if the media wants to ask the running back questions, they’d have to do so through Hernandez. If he does so on the offensive line, Barkley shouldn’t have to go off-script nearly as often and should be able to to hit holes with authority more often.
Barkley running with determination is a scary thing for defenses.
A little help from his friends
Nearly every scouting report you will read about Barkley calls him a “Home Run Threat,” and it’s an apt description. In that way he’s like the Yankees’ superstar outfielder Aaron Judge when he first made the big leagues.
A physical freak, he has the ability to do simply stunning things, but he sometimes lacks discipline in picking his shots.
Perhaps the biggest thing the Giants can do for Barkley is surrounding him with other talented players. At Penn State, Barkley pretty much was the offense. Mike Gesicki is a physical freak and Daesean Hamilton is a fine receiver, but neither ever seemed to really scare defenses. Even more than creating “pick your poison” X’s and O’s opportunities for Barkley, having players like Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, and Evan Engram around him on the offense.
Eventually, and hopefully sooner rather than later, Barkley will realize that he doesn’t have to try to win the game on any play. The offense will also have Shepard to keep the chains moving, Engram to attack the middle of the field, and OBJ to do all of the above, as well as Odell things and threaten the entire field. Barkley won’t have to carry the offense all by himself, it’ll be okay to take balls or just hit a single — there will be others who could drive in the score.
That, in and of itself, could be a revelation for the young man.
It is a mark of how solid a prospect Saquon Barkley is that the primary complaint about him is “tries to do too much”. And really, it’s a trait that shouldn’t be all that alien for Giants’ fans. Throughout his career, that has been Eli Manning’s biggest weakness — and while it does lead to “Bad Eli” moments, it also leads to things like The Catch in Super Bowl 42. We’ve also seen it from players like Victor Cruz or Beckham, who would try to reverse field, backtrack, or in some other way try to break a big play, only to set the offense back.
It’s an aspect of competitiveness, that players who can do these things sometimes try too hard to put the team on their backs and make a play when nobody else is.
Adding Saquon Barkley should make the Giants a better team. The number one need of every team is talent, and Barkley has oodles of it. But football is a team game, and the best teams are more than the sum of their parts.
Hopefully, the team is asking how they can make Barkley better, because that will only make them better.