“Us taking Saquon was not a referendum on the quarterbacks, it was a referendum on Saquon – on the player he is, and on the person he is. If I was in that situation 100 times, I’d draft him 100 times.”
That was Dave Gettleman during his postseason press conference last week when asked about the selection of Saquon Barkley over a quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft. Of course the Giants general manager was going to get asked about it and of course that was the way he was going to respond.
But the question is going to continue to be asked, as it should, and how it’s going to be answered depends on how you want to view it. The Barkley conversation continues to be one that has arguments on both sides.
Viewpoint: Barkley finished the season with the second-most rushing yards in the league
Only Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys (1,434) finished the season with more rushing yards than Barkley (1,307). His 5.0 yards per carry were also tied for ninth among 55 running backs with at least 85 carries this season. He was consistently relied upon and consistently produced. He was only the 22nd rookie since the merger to eclipse 1,300 rushing yards.
Alternate viewpoint: Those yards and carries weren’t particularly efficient
On Barkley’s 261 carries, only 51 went for a first down, a rate of just 19.5 percent that ranked 39th of the 55 backs with at least 85 carries. 17 backs had a first down rate of at least 25 percent and even David Johnson, in the direst of running back situations, eclipsed 20 percent (20.5 percent). Barkley’s 51 first downs are also well below what would be expected by a back with his number of carries. The graph below charts those running backs along with their carries and first downs gained. The trendline shows about how many first downs a back should expect given the number of carries he received (Barkley in blue).
Per Sports Info Solutions, Barkley’s rushing attempts produced negative-13.5 Expected Points Added (which gives a value to each play based on expectations from historical play-by-play) and that ranked 39th among this group of running backs. Just 35 percent of Barkley’s rushing attempts provided positive EPA, which ranked 45th among this group. If EPA is too fancy for you, Football Outsiders measures Success Rate by the percentage of yards gained on a given down and there, Barkley’s 41 percent Success Rate ranked 40th among 47 running backs with at least 100 carries.
Viewpoint: Barkley was an asset in the passing game
Barkley was second among all running backs and 13th among all players in receptions (91) this season. His 721 receiving yards were the fourth most for a running back and was just the fifth back since the merger to eclipse 700 receiving yards in his rookie season.
Alternate viewpoint: Those weren’t all that efficient, either
Let’s go with first downs again. Just 34.1 percent of Barkley’s receptions went for a first down, which ranked 17th among 29 running backs with at least 40 targets. 10 backs, the ones usually most associated with good receiving ability, eclipsed 40 percent. Again, Barkley’s first down rate was well below what was expected of someone with his volume.
If we look at overall efficiency on those targets, Barkley picked up just 0.8 EPA, which ranked 18th, and only 38 percent of those plays had positive EPA, 26th among this group.
Usage was part of the problem for Barkley’s receiving production. Just 41.2 percent of his targets came past the line of scrimmage and only 37.4 percent of his receptions came beyond the line. There’s an argument that would make it difficult for any back to have consistent positive production. Only five backs in this sample had fewer air yards per reception than Barkley, however, four of those five had a higher positive play percentage with Dion Lewis the only exception.
Viewpoint: Barkley was an elite tackle breaker
Per Sports Info Solutions, Barkley led the league with 94 broken tackles combined rushing and receiving. No other player came close. The second-most total broken tackles came from Christian McCaffrey who had 62. When we adjust for how often Barkley touched the ball, he still comes out as a clear positive outlier.
Here’s where he was on broken tackles on the ground among those backs with at least 85 carries:
The only player remotely in Barkley’s range was Chris Carson of the Seattle Seahawks, who had more broken tackles on fewer carries.
Alternate viewpoint: Nah, he was good there
There’s really no counter.
Viewpoint: The offensive line was the cause of any inefficiency
The Giants’ offensive line really struggled this season. It went through a number of changes throughout the season with an attempt to find a combination of five players who would work the best together. It’s arguable whether that combination was ever found. That struggles and lack of consistency showed the most in the running game.
Football Outsiders tracks Adjusted Line Yards, which divides credit for runs between the offensive lines and the running backs. The Giants’ offensive line ranked 29th in Adjusted Line Yards, which is the responsibility of the line, this season and 24th in stuffed rate, which measures the percentage of runs stopped at or behind the line. On the other hand, the Giants ranked first in Open Field Yards, which come from runs when the running back gains 10 or more yards. With better and more consistent blocking, Barkley could have gained positive yards on more plays with a higher probability to rip off a long run.
Alternate viewpoint: Well, yeah, that’s kind of the point
In the post-draft press conference, Gettleman stated part of the rationale for the Barkley pick was that he made the quarterback better, made the offensive line better, and made the defense better. Considering three of the main needs the Giants have this offseason are quarterback, offensive line, and defensive talent, we can conclude that logic is faulty at best.
But let’s just stick with the offensive line. The argument against taking a running back — no matter how talented — second overall and on a team that was constructed like the Giants was that a single running back can only do so much to make an impact on offense. Even with arguably the most singularly talented running back in the league, the Giants finished 18th in rushing DVOA. Go take a look at the teams that finished above the Giants and count how many of the running backs you’d rather have over Barkley and then count the number of offensive lines you’d rather have than the Giants’. Then trying coming out of that exercise believing the running back is the most important part of that equation.
There are numbers that can prove whatever side of the Barkley argument you want to take — though some of those hold up better under closer examination than others. What can’t really be argued is that with Barkley now on the roster, the Giants need to be better and more efficient with his touches in 2019 and there are still plenty of holes that need to be filled around him for the Giants to reach the potential they sold from the time Barkley was picked.