Saquon Barkley arrived on the scene in 2018 and promptly became the New York Giants’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2012. But before Barkley’s brilliance, the Giants’ running back situation was a pit of mediocrity for half a decade.
From 2013-2017, the Giants didn’t have a single rusher top 900 yards. The lack of a consistent running game plagued the Giants during that span.
And obviously Barkley has made the doldrums of 2013-2017 Giants’ run game distant memories. But that gloomy period was never supposed to happen.
In late April 2012, the Giants thought they found a feature back when they drafted David Wilson in the first round. It is ‘What If?” week for SB Nation football sites. So, what if Wilson had never gotten hurt?
Wilson (who was the reigning ACC Player of the Year) joined the Giants who were fresh off of a Super Bowl victory and had veteran running back and heart of the team, Ahmad Bradshaw, still under contract.
Things got off to a rough start for Wilson. In his first regular season game, Wilson fumbled the ball, which is an enormous “no-no” if your head coach is Tom Coughlin. After his Week 1 blunder, Wilson didn’t get more than three carries until Week 6, and his workload as a runner was mostly limited to fourth-quarter clean-up duty. However, Wilson displayed his talents in the return game, routinely setting up the offense with favorable field position.
Wilson’s coming out party came in Week 14 against the New Orleans Saints. On a rainy day at MetLife Stadium, Wilson was simply on fire. Wilson returned a kickoff for a touchdown, rushed for two touchdowns and finished the game with a franchise-record 327 yards of total offense.
Wilson ended his up-and-down rookie campaign with a 75-yard rushing performance in a 42-7 trouncing of the Eagles, which brought his season total to 358. He also led the NFL in kick return yards that year with 1,533.
What went wrong?
When the Giants released Bradshaw on Feb. 6, 2013 to create cap room, they essentially doubled down on their investment in Wilson. The front office, which was headed by Jerry Reese at the time, clearly liked what it saw in Wilson’s rookie year enough to fully commit to him as the team’s starting running back.
It was a move that made sense and is even justifiable in hindsight. Despite being a spark plug for the team, Bradshaw’s body was decaying and the wear-and-tear ultimately led to his subpar stint with the Colts.
Where the Giants severely erred was in not adding a proven, reliable back up to complement Wilson, or at the very least, depth. The team seemingly believed Andre Brown could be the team’s backup running back. But in the 2013 preseason finale, Brown fractured the same leg he broke the previous year.
The Giants entered Week 1 with three active running backs: Wilson, Da’Rel Scott and Michael Cox.
Wilson’s fumbling issues resurfaced in Week 1, as he coughed up the ball twice. But with the lack of depth at the position, the Giants had no choice but to continue playing Wilson.
Playing behind a sub-serviceable offensive line, Wilson struggled immensely for the rest of his season. In Week 5, Wilson scored his first touchdown of the year. But later in the game, Wilson had an Eagles defender slam him into the turf as he was trying to break a tackle. The whiplash was obvious to see, and the injury cost Wilson the remainder of what was a morbid 2013 campaign for the Giants.
During the 2014 preseason, Wilson suffered a “burner,” which caused numbness in his hands and lower extremities. Doctors advised him to end his playing career, and Wilson obliged.
While Wilson doesn’t believe he came back to the field too early, he’s since stated additional caution and rest could’ve helped his health.
What could’ve been?
For argument’s sake, let’s say Wilson did make a full recovery from his career-ending neck injury.
Going into the 2014 season, the Giants rectified their mistake from the previous year and inked veteran running back Rashad Jennings to a deal. Additionally, the Giants added Andre Williams in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. Jennings was brought in to complement Wilson, and that’s what would’ve happened. The Giants probably would have utilized Jennings in short-yardage situations, while allowing Wilson to handle the majority of the standard snaps. Think of an off-Broadway version of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs.
In reality, Williams and Jennings rushed for 721 and 639 yards, respectively. With Wilson in the fold, however, both of their carries would’ve decreased. With Wilson’s ability to break off long runs, it’s feasible to think he could’ve amassed 720-850 yards on the ground. Jennings and Williams were both virtual non-factors as receivers. Wilson would be a threat in the passing game by nature of his speed and quickness in Ben McAdoo’s offense.
Despite having a healthy Wilson, the Giants still would’ve had a futile defense and a leaky offensive line. However, Wilson’s dynamic skill set, paired with Odell Beckham Jr.’s emergence would have provided the Giants with a dynamic offensive duo.
Moving ahead to 2015, the presence of Wilson likely would’ve kept the Giants from signing Shane Vereen. Instead of allocating $12.5 million to bring in Vereen on a three-year deal, let’s say the Giants signed OT Doug Free away from the Cowboys. In reality, Free received a comparable deal to return to Dallas.
With Will Beatty and Free manning the starting tackle spots, the Giants could have gone in a different direction with their No. 9 overall pick in 2015. In this alternate reality, instead of Ereck Flowers, they take Danny Shelton.
As it pertains to Wilson, 2015 would’ve been similar to his 2014 season. Some big runs, some fumbles and some injuries. Once again, I don’t think he would have gone over 1,000-yards rushing.
With his production and penchant for explosive plays, the Giants would’ve felt comfortable picking up his fifth-year option.
Wilson would have made the most impact in 2016. That year, no Giants rusher had a run longer than 25 yards. Wilson’s speed and explosiveness would’ve given the run game juice. Additionally, the Giants were overly reliant on Odell Beckham Jr. that year, and the offense became predictable with no threat at running back.
The Giants would’ve had a tough decision on their hands following the 2016 campaign.
In this scenario, they still go 11-5 and lose in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The 2017 free agency class was outstandingly weak at running back, so Wilson could’ve gotten a substantial raise signing elsewhere. Wilson’s price tag probably would’ve been too lucrative for the Giants, who were mainly focused on keeping the key defensive pieces intact.
With or without Wilson, the 2017 season would’ve been a disaster and the Giants would’ve been picking within the top five. In this speculative timeline, Dave Gettleman still becomes the Giants’ general manager, and in no timeline does Gettleman not draft Saquon Barkley.
So that brings an end to Wilson’s hypothetical tenure with the Giants.
A best-case comparison for Wilson would’ve been a tranquilized post-Saints Reggie Bush. Wilson wouldn’t have put the Giants any closer to contending for a Super Bowl, as few running backs do. But he would’ve given the offense a much-needed spark at running back, and helped bridge the gap between Bradshaw and Barkley.
One interesting byproduct of Wilson remaining healthy would have been the Giants’ kick-return situation. Wilson, with the exception of Week 1, maintained his kick-return duties in 2013. He averaged 24.7 yards per return, which would have placed him at 11th that year. Wilson would have lifted the Giants’ relatively stagnant return game, and that’s where he would’ve made most of his impact.
Although Wilson flashed sparks of brilliance in his rookie year, his frame and running style would’ve prevented him from developing into the type of back who can carry an offense. He boasted tremendous lateral quickness and was an explosive north-south runner, but it’s tough to imagine him lasting an entire 16-game season. Although he was most dangerous in space, Wilson ran tougher than he got credit for. That type of running isn’t conducive to playing a full season when you’re 5-foot-9.
Despite his shortcomings, I believe Wilson would’ve established himself as a relatively important piece on the offense. During 2014-16, the Giants sorely lacked a running back who could break off for long gains. In that span, the Giants only had one run over 50 yards. Wilson always had the ability to turn short runs into huge plays, and that was a dimension the offense needed.
His stint with the Giants likely would’ve mirrored fellow first-round pick Prince Amukamara’s, in the sense that both players avoided being an outright bust, but neither became blue-chip pieces for the franchise.
Still only 28 years old today, Wilson would likely still have a home on some NFL team as a satellite back and return man.
Verdict: Wilson would’ve been a productive, albeit inconsistent big-play back who would have made at least one Pro Bowl as a returner