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Were Saquon Barkley’s second-half of season targets better than the first half in 2018?

Let’s examine how well the Giants used the rookie running back as a receiver

New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After the New York Giants selected Saquon Barkley second overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, the front office and coaching staff sold a plan that would take advantage of Barkley’s skill set and justify such a high pick on a running back. During offseason workouts and training camp, Barkley was being moved around the formation in the passing game, taking snaps and seeing targets from the slot and outside. Everything looked great.

Then the regular season started and little of the creativity transferred. Barkley was regularly targeted on panicked check downs well behind the line of scrimmage and zero of 121 passes thrown his way came while he was lined up in the slot.

Overall, Barkley’s targets were worth 1.5 Expected Points Added over the entire season, per Sports Info Solutions. He had a positive play rate (the percentage of plays that resulted in positive EPA) of just 43 percent. Among 21 running backs with at least 50 targets in 2018, those numbers ranked 14th and 17th, respectively.

The conventional wisdom, though, is that Barkley’s targets got better and more efficient during the second half of the season. Strictly by value, that wasn’t the case at all.

On 71 targets from Weeks 1-8, Barkley had 6.8 EPA and a positive play rate of 47 percent. On his 50 post-bye targets from Weeks 10-17, Barkley had minus-5.3 EPA and a positive play rate of just 34 percent. His yards per target dropped from 7.1 to 4.5 from the first to second half of the season and his yards per reception dropped from 8.6 to 6.8.

Of course, the answer isn’t that simple, either. There were some good things to take away from Barkley’s usage over the second half of the season, but also a lot of factors that caused those targets to be so inefficient.

Some of this was just baked into an offense that was frustrating and inconsistent in both design and execution. Let’s look at Barkley’s first two targets after the Week 9 bye. The first was a third-and-4 midway through the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers. The Giants came out in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) and motioned Sterling Shepard in tight before the snap. That gave Barkley enough space to release up the sideline for an easy catch and first down.

Five plays later on a second-and-10, the Giants ran a poorly executed screen that saw missed blocks from Spencer Pulley and Chad Wheeler and a whole lot of running by Barkley to gain exactly zero yards.

During the second half of the season, the Giants did throw to Barkley beyond the line of scrimmage more often. In the first half, 61.4 percent of his targets came behind line but that improved to 52 percent after the bye. For a player like Barkley, getting him into space beyond the line of scrimmage is more likely to set him up for success than a dump off and hoping for multiple broken tackles. Still, shots like this one against Washington were the exceptions.

Despite the higher percentage of passes beyond the line of scrimmage, Barkley’s average pass was still caught behind it. Drops aren’t a long-term concern with Barkley, but he did struggle there in the second half of the season too with a 10.7 percent drop rate opposed to a 4.7 percent drop rate before the bye.

There is another part of this that comes down to quarterback play. Many of Barkley’s first-half targets came as rushed check downs, but they were at least catchable rushed check downs. Per SIS charting, 64 of Barkley’s 71 targets (90.1 percent) were considered catchable from Weeks 1-8. That dropped significantly to 39 of 50 (78 percent) from Weeks 10-17. Combine those two factors and it’s easy to see why Barkley still caught fewer passes than expected in 2018.

Off-target throws were certainly a problem in the second half of the season but more concerning was the number of instances when Eli Manning’s internal clock and the timing of routes were in different time zones, even as the offensive line improved.

Here’s Barkley getting force-fed a bad pass on second down for a loss of three. Manning turned to Barkley at the top of his drop, despite room to step up in the pocket, and Bennie Fowler (18, bottom of screen) about to come open on a post.

On the below play, Manning airmailed a throw to a covered Barkley again with room to step up in the pocket and Sterling Shepard, who started in the left slot, gaining a step on his defender crossing the field.

Some of this can potentially be righted with better offensive line play. Some of this can be righted with better quarterback play. Some of this could also be righted by better play from Barkley. There definitely are paths forward to get better usage and production on passes to a start running back, but the Giants will have to identify and fix those problems to move forward. One thing the Giants can’t do is believe the problem has already been fixed and the second half of the season represents what the offense should look like in 2019.