When it comes to talk about New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley it is genuinely difficult to not wax hyperbolic.
It is common when talking about draft prospects to resort to comparisons to communicate traits. It’s quicker and easier for someone to talk about who a certain prospect might resemble than going into a granular discretion of traits and how they might translate to the field. Using comparisons to describe prospects is an easy habit to slip in to, but it’s also one I try to resist — but that doesn’t change the fact that they can be a convenient short hand. Everyone remembers Brandon Jacobs’ size, power, and speed in the open field or Tiki Barber’s patience behind the line of scrimmage.
The common practice is to reach for recent or well-known names when making comparisons, but there is just something about Saquon Barkley that makes reaching for truly historic comparisons all too easy.
The last rookie to come in and immediately garner comparisons to all-time greats was probably Andrew Luck in 2012. Before he was even drafted he was being spoken of in the same breath as John Elway and Dan Marino — and for Saquon it is much the same, though with a different set of greats to whom he is being compared.
The “laws” of physics are more like “suggestions,” really
Here is what our own Ed Valentine said in his weekly “Valentine’s Views.”
I think it’s cool that Saquon Barkley got to meet Barry Sanders on Friday. I think it’s a bummer that Barkley didn’t bring his Barry Sanders action figure to Detroit so Sanders could sign it. No one will ever be Sanders, but Barkley’s elusiveness and ability to cut with power and speed sometimes remind of Sanders. The other Hall of Famer Barkley sometimes reminds me of, and you probably need to be an old guy to appreciate this, is Gale Sayers. Like those two, Barkley in the open field is an utter nightmare for defenses.
Comparing Barkley with Sanders and Sayers? That’s crazy, right?
Yeah, yeah it is. It is crazy to compare a rookie — even one who has been hyped to the moon and gone — to two of the best pure runners in NFL history.
But then you see something like this:
To have the kind of balance, flexibility, agility, strength, and power to perform the cut that Sanders and Barkley did is just rare. To run at full speed, stop, let one leg go dead to change your center of gravity, shrug off an arm tackle and then immediately explode back to full speed? It’s tough to not look at Sanders making a very similar move and not have your eyebrows go up.
At time’s I’ve gone there with Barkley as well. Not because of any runaway hype train, but Barkley’s traits demand to be compared to the all-time greats. That doesn’t mean that he will be an all-timer himself, but when it comes to his freakishly explosive athleticism, there aren’t many comparisons other than Bo Jackson. When it comes to Barkley’s ability to threaten in any down and distance, as a runner or receiver, it’s tough to not see shades of Marshall Faulk or LaDainian Tomlinson.
Barkley the athletic freak
The first thing we all go to with Barkley is his, frankly, insane athleticism. Even at the NFL level, where everybody is on the extreme eastern slope of the bell curve when it comes to At the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, a scout opined that after Barkley’s performance, he (the scout) expected him (Barkley) to put a cape on and fly out of Lucas Oil Stadium.
Players who can do what Barkley can do — on the field or in the gym — are simply rare. We’ve seen the videos of him breaking the power clean record at Penn State, set by defensive lineman Anthony Zettel (who also tackles trees for fun).
At the combine, we saw him simply dominate, stumbling on his way to a 4.40 second 40- yard dash at 233 pounds. As it was, his speed at his size gave him the fourth-highest speed score since the NFL began to use electronic timing in 1999. Had he not stumbled, it seems likely that he would have broken into the 4.3’s and a time of 4.35 seconds would have resulted in a speed score of over 130 — the highest since ‘99.
Faced with that level of athleticism that was translated to the field, it’s hard not to look to the athletic freak in NFL history, Bo Jackson.
Before a freak injury on a routine tackle robbed him of much of his mythic athleticism, Jackson was capable of simply dominating defenders who tried to stop him, and it’s hard to not see the similarities.
And then there’s this from Barkley for his second touchdown against USC in the 2017 Rose Bowl. Stylistically they’re a bit different — Barkley prefers to make defenders miss when he can, rather than run over them, while Jackson had no compunctions against delivering hits when the opportunity was there — but it’s tough not to see shades of Jackson’s explosive power and speed in Barkley.
A weapon in the passing game
About that style difference? That’s where Barkley’s ability as a receiver stand out. Despite also being an All-Star outfielder for the Kansas City Royals, Jackson was never featured as a receiver. He caught more than 10 passes twice in his football career. Once (13 receptions) at Auburn, and once (16 receptions) as a Raider.
Barkley comes out of college a polished receiver as both a route runner and catcher of the football. In addition to being the engine that powered Penn State’s offense on the ground, he also grew to be a featured weapon in the passing game, with 54 receptions his final year (tied for second on the team).
There have been great dual threat running backs to enter the league recently. Players like Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson put their receiving skills to work in today’s pass-happy NFL. But again, there’s something all too easy about calling back to an earlier age and looking to the player who, arguably, put that style of running back on the map. Marshall Faulk was a great running back for the Indianapolis Colts, but his ability to be a dynamic runner and receiver was the spark that ignited the Los Angeles Rams’ “Greatest Show On Turf”.
When the Giants drafted Barkley it wasn’t just with the notion that he would help the passing game by influencing defenses as a runner, but that he could be a legitimate weapon as a primary option as a weapon in the passing game as well.
Allow me to reiterate: It is insane to compare a rookie to an all-time great like Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers, Bo Jackson, Marshall Faulk, or LaDainian Tomlinson. That is a ridiculous amount of pressure and expectations to put on a young man who has yet to have even one regular season carry.
And it’s not even like he is stepping in to an NFL experiencing a lack of talent at his position. With Bell, Johnson, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Kareem Hunt, and Alvin Kamara all entering the league in recent years, there are plenty of talented peers to whom he can be compared.
But there is just something about Saquon that makes it at once all too easy to make those comparison, and difficult NOT to make them. His demeanor and professionalism, as a rookie, make him seem like a 10-year vet before he ever set foot on an NFL field. His size, speed, agility, balance, flexibility, power, and explosiveness are just beyond what us normal humans — and even many professional athletes — could ever dream of.
The hype train on Barkley has been out of control for nearly a year now, and these comparisons have been almost inescapable. Fortunately, we only have a couple weeks to wait until Barkley gets the chance to forge his own path and maybe future players will be compared to him.