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How well was Saquon Barkley used as a receiver at the end of the 2018 season?

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Did the Giants use Barkley to his full potential in the last quarter of the season?

NFL: Washington Redskins at New York Giants Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants’ offense will heavily feature Saquon Barkley in 2019. That is both a blatantly obvious statement and also one of the things we know with absolute certainty about the Giants’ plans for the coming year.

After a season that saw Barkley finish second in the league in rushing yardage, second in receptions among running backs, fourth in reception yardage, and become the reigning offensive rookie of the year, it stands to reason that the Giants’ offense is in pretty good hands.

But what if they could get more out of Barkley? What if the Giants could use him better?

In our latest podcast, Dan and I answered a question regarding production in “Garbage Time” (which we defined as being down by 10 or more points at the end of the game). In the course of researching that question, Dan discovered that Saquon Barkley was the most targeted receiving option in the NFL in those circumstances. However, he also had an expected points added (EPA) of roughly -6 when targeted in garbage time. Throwing to Barkley when the Giants were down and desperately trying to claw their way back at the end of games was a wasted snap and generally set the offense back.

Now, before you go stomping angrily to the comments section, that isn’t commentary on Barkley.

As mentioned above, Barkley was second among running backs in receptions and fourth in receiving yards, but even so, he could have been more productive if the Giants had put him in better positions as a receiver. Football Outsiders ranked Barkley 13th in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement), with 86 more yards than a replacement-level running back would have. His overall efficiency as a receiver was even worse, with a -0.7 percent DVOA (defense-adjusted value above replacement) landing him 28th among 53 qualified running backs and just below replacement level.

That’s because Barkley was primarily a check-down option for the Giants over the course 2018 season, and not used as a weapon to attack the defense. His average depth of target was nearly a yard (.7 yards to be exact) behind the line of scrimmage. On any given target, it was likely that Barkley not only had to make (at least) one defender miss, but also make up ground before he could even hope to create positive yardage. Fully 110 percent of Barkley’s actual yardage last year was after the catch. Had his depth of target been at the line of scrimmage, Barkley would have been second among running backs in receiving yards behind only Christian McCaffrey.

It wasn’t Barkley’s fault, but rather how the Giants used him.

Chatting with Ed after recording the podcast, he mentioned this:

Funny on Barkley, John Schmeelk and I discussed his number of catches when I had him on earlier in the week and we both agreed a lot of his receptions were “empty” ones that had no value. My anecdotal belief is his 33 catches over the final 8 games were more valuable than his 51 catches the first 8.

So, Ed asked Dan and I to take a closer look at Barkley’s usage as a receiver. For my part, I wanted to take things a step further and look specifically at how Barkley was used in the passing game after the Giants lost Odell Beckham to injury. Did the Giants’ create more meaningful opportunities for Barkley after losing their star receiver? Considering Barkley will be the centerpiece of the offense going forward, I thought that was a question worth investigating.

And before I get into my charting of his targets over the last quarter of the season, I want to take a minute to explain how I judged a “meaningful play.” Rather than relying on DVOA or EPA, I settled on a more subjective analysis and decided that I would count a meaningful target as one that sought to get Barkley the ball in space and in position to attack the defense.

In most cases this was pretty clear cut — a swing pass three yards behind the line of scrimmage is pretty meaningless.

But in a couple cases things weren’t as easily defined, so I tried to look at the process behind how Barkley got the ball, rather than the outcome.

Here the Giants have a great outcome. Eli Manning isn’t sacked and Barkley is able to turn a check-down into a 17 yard gain. The process, however, isn’t special — it’s a dump off when the QB is under pressure and doesn’t have time to find his receivers downfield.

This play however, is the opposite.

On this play the Giants do a good job of setting Barkley up for a big gain as they’re trying to score in a two-minute drill. They use their receivers to create space, and have blockers in place on a screen play. Unfortunately, Nate Solder falls down directly in front of Barkley, tripping him as he makes the catch and the play only goes for three yards. So while the outcome was bad, the process here is good and it’s a meaningful target.

Barkley’s targets

Before I dive into how many of Barkley’s targets I thought were meaningful, I want to go over some of the raw data I found while charting those targets.

  • Eli Manning targeted Barkley 28 times over the final four games, averaging out to seven per game. It should be noted that this comes with the qualifier that Barkley didn’t play the fourth quarter in the Giants’ rout of Washington. That game throws off his distribution of targets, as the Giants switched to running the ball more in the second half of that game and Barkley (naturally) didn’t see any targets when he wasn’t on the field in the fourth quarter.
  • It is striking how little he was used in the third quarter of the other three games. Barkley didn’t see a single target in the third quarter in week 15 against the Tennessee Titans, and only saw one target in third quarters against the Indianapolis Colts and Dallas Cowboys.
  • Of his 28 targets, most of them came on first down. Fully half (14) of his targets came on first down, with eight coming on second down and six on third down. First down was also Barkley’s most efficient down, catching 10 of those 14 targets.
  • In line with what Dan found with Barkley being the most targeted receiver in “garbage time,” Barkley was highly targeted at the end of halves. He saw 17 of his 28 targets in the second and fourth quarters, and that is with him not playing in one of four fourth quarters. Barkley was targeted eight times in the fourth quarter, and that number would likely have been (much) higher had the Week 14 game against Washington not been a blow-out.

Meaningful targets

I’ll admit right off the bat that this is somewhat subjective for the reasons stated above.

Sometimes distinguishing between good process and good result was tricky, but ultimately I found just seven of his 28 targets to be “meaningful.” As mentioned above, “meaningful targets” are, to me, targets that look to put Barkley in position to play to his strengths and attack the defense. In short, I wanted to see Barkley used like the offensive weapon he is, not just another safety blanket.

Barkley was targeted on swing and flat routes 15 times, getting him the ball either behind or within five yards of the line of scrimmage. While getting Barkley the ball beyond the line of scrimmage is a good thing and something the Giants need to find ways to do more often, the flat route usually sees him running parallel to the line of scrimmage and catching the ball as he goes toward the sideline. It is an easy completion that advances the offense, but it also wastes Barkley’s explosiveness and playmaking ability. There was one instance of that route being run more vertically and Barkley getting the ball with room to turn up field, and that was the one instance of those routes I thought was truly meaningful.

The rest of the meaningful targets were made up of three screen plays, two wheel routes (one of which I touched on in a previous installment in our Summer School series), and an angle route.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barkley’s best usage came in the Giants’ Week 16 game against the Colts. That game saw two of the three screen plays and the aforementioned flat route. It really shouldn’t be surprising that Barkley was best used in that game, it was probably the Giants’ best offensive performance of the season. While they largely failed to run the ball, the passing game balanced aggression, risk management, misdirection, and execution. The game against Washington saw two of Barkley’s five targets on wheel routes all season long. Both were successful, well thought out and executed plays.

At the opposite end of the spectrum were the games against the Titans and Dallas. Those two games saw Barkley targeted nine and eight times (respectively), but only two of which were targets I judged to be really meaningful. Instead, those games saw Barkley targeted almost exclusively on quick passes with little hope of producing plays that would really influence the game in the Giants’ favor.

Final thoughts

Even though his usage was inconsistent, Barkley probably was better used in the second half of the season than in the first half. The Giants didn’t target him in the backfield quite as often and used quick passes to Barkley as supplements for their running game. They even made an effort (in some games) to use Barkley to really attack the defense.

But still, using a player like Saquon Barkley for checkdowns and quick passes is something like buying a Ferrari and mostly using it as a grocery-getter. A Mustang would give you the same results with most of the same ability to occasionally have some fun but for a fraction of the price — for that matter a used Civic would get the job done. You don’t spring for a Ferrari to drive sedately to the corner store, and you don’t draft Saquon Barkley to pick up 5 yards before stepping out of bounds.

The Giants took steps in the right direction. In the next part I’ll take a look at a couple ways in which they can further improve their usage of Barkley.