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Friday spotlight: About Saquon Barkley and that theoretical “timeline”

The Giants haven’t been good enough to really maximize Barkley — will they ever be?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In my neighborhood I’m “that guy” when it comes to my lawn. The one who is forever obsessing over every imperfection, pulling up weeds no one else sees, religiously putting down Scott’s products at the right times of year, and overseeding bare spots at the end of every summer season.

But, you don’t care about my lawn. I know that. So, why am I telling you this? If I was a high-falutin’ lawyer in a courtroom I would probably say something all fancy like “it goes to motive.” Because, well, the lawn story goes to tell you how the Saquon Barkley column you are — hopefully — about to read came about.

See, a couple of days ago I popped out my front door to move the sprinkler that was watering down bare spots in my recently overseeded front lawn. Across the street, a couple of my neighbors — who I am pretty certain do not know what I do for a living — were discussing the New York Giants and their loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Using my stealth mode superpowers I re-arranged the sprinkler while listening to the conversation. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to Barkley, the Giants “timeline” for winning, and the idea that “if I could get a No. 1 pick for him” one of my neighbor GMs would trade the star running back.

So, let’s talk about Barkley.

Coming off a career-worst 15-carry, 6-yard game on Monday night, stung by absolutely justifiable criticism of his pass protection from Tiki Barber and some in the media openly wondering if the Giants will ever be good enough to maximize Barkley’s incredible skills before they inevitably begin to erode this has turned into the most tumultuous week of Barkley’s three-year career.

The headlines and the loud part of the conversation are about Barkley’s ongoing ineptitude in pass protection. When one great Giants running back, even one as despised by some the way Barber is, calls out another great Giants running back, there are going to be headlines. And sparks. Especially since Barber questioned Barkley’s toughness, saying “he doesn’t want to hit anybody.”

I’m not ever going to question Barkley’s toughness. I am, though, going to say that Barber is 100 percent right when it comes to Barkley’s pass protection. It’s not nearly good enough. It hurts the Giants’ offense in so many ways. It blows up plays and gets Daniel Jones hit. It takes a weapon away from the offense. Teams see Barkley next to Jones in passing situations and it’s becoming an automatic blitz. First, that pressures Jones. Second, it capitalizes on a Barkley weakness. Third, it takes a terrific receiver and obvious dynamic open field threat out of the passing attack.

There are only so many times offensive coordinator Jason Garrett can go five-wide and split Barkley out so he doesn’t have to pass protect. Picking up blitzers is part of a running back’s job, and Barkley needs to figure that out.

Barkley’s pass protection, though, is really just our conversation-starter. The substance is really about that “timeline,” about whether or not the Giants will ever be a winning team that truly takes advantage of having a player as wondrous as Barkley is now before his skills inevitably begin to decline.

How long is that window? Every back is different. Barkley is just 23. Adrian Peterson had a 2,000-yard rushing season at 27 and is still playing at a high level at age 35. Todd Gurley, on the other hand, is only 26 and his dominant days appear to be long gone.

So, you never know how long that window will stay open.

Maybe it was Conor Orr of Sports Illustrated who really brought this “timeline” narrative to the front. Here is part of a piece Orr wrote this week headlined “Does Saquon Barkley Fit the Giants’ Timeline?

To watch Saquon Barkley try to hurdle defenders on every small whiff of open field is like watching someone try to weave a Lamborghini through Jersey Shore traffic on a particularly beautiful Saturday in July. Every ounce of free pavement is a beautiful display, but unfortunately there is not nearly the room to legitimize breaking the thing out of the garage in the first place.

The player the Giants took No. 2 in 2018 has been trapped like this for the better part of two seasons; a superstar enveloped by the reality of a roster overhaul that is taking far too long. There have been moments of brilliance, sure. Rare moments when their personnel can overwhelm an opponent to give Barkley the ounce of space he requires to create havoc. But the fact remains after a Giants season-opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at MetLife: Barkley is a valuable asset, but one that is needlessly depreciating in a place that cannot facilitate his best right now.

Let’s call this a pre-overreaction. An overreaction that is meant to cook slowly over the course of the early season. But if the first few weeks of 2020 continue to unfold in a similar fashion, the Giants have to begin considering a world where moving Barkley and maximizing his return while another club might be willing to deal a first-round pick isn’t a totally outrageous concept.

Before we even consider the “should the Giants trade Barkley?” part of that, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning. Which means going back to place I don’t want go because it returns to a battleground we have been over and over and about which no minds are going to be changed. It’s also sort of pointless because it’s done and can’t be changed.

Still, it’s the starting point for all of us. I’m talking, of course, about whether or not the Giants should have drafted Barkley No. 2 overall to begin with in 2018.

You should know by now that I have had a long-held belief that taking a running back in the first round, especially that early in the draft, is rarely a good idea. A running back is a finishing piece to a puzzle, not generally a beginning piece. Like the New England Patriots adding Sony Michel 31st overall in 2018. Short shelf life and cost simply make it that way.

Barkley is a magnificent player. For my money, he is exactly what GM Dave Gettleman thought he was — the best player in that draft class. How can it be wrong to select the best player in the draft?

I believe Gettleman drafted Barkley not thinking of the Giants as a “rebuild.” Eli Manning was still the starting quarterback. Odell Beckham Jr. was still a Giant. The Giants still had many of the pieces from a defense that was outstanding in 2016.

I believe the Giants thought they had enough to make one more playoff run with Manning. Barkley was incredible as a rookie with 2,028 yards. Had they been good, he might have made them great. They were bad, though, and he alone could not make them good.

If the Giants had felt they were in start from scratch mode in 2018 perhaps they would have moved out of the No. 2 spot in exchange for a rich haul of draft assets. But they didn’t.

Now? They are starting over again with Joe Judge. The cupboard isn’t as bare as it was two years ago in terms of talent on the roster. Still, the Giants appear to be a ways away from being able to compete consistently with the best teams — from being able to be a consistent contender and put Barkley in a position to be a difference-maker on a championship-caliber team.

Top-tier running backs like Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Ezekiel Elliott are getting rich second contracts now after their third seasons — a year before their rookie deals expire.

The Giants are probably going to be looking at giving Barkley that long-term extension after this season. No matter how brilliant Barkley is in 2020, if the Giants are bad again what will they actually be paying for? A few Barry Sanders-esque highlights that interrupt bad football? Is that worth it?

I think the Giants are banking on a Peterson-like arc to Barkley’s career rather than a Gurley-like one. We should all hope for that. There are, though, no guarantees.

I absolutely believe Barkley when he says “I truly don’t care about other people’s opinions.” Although I do believe he has enough pride to desperately want do something on the field to remind those “other people” of the kind of player he is.

We are one game into the 2020 season and the Judge era of Giants’ football. Let’s not overreact to one game and decide that moving on from Barkley in return for a draft haul is something the Giants must do.

No one knows what things will look like when the season is over four months from now. Just a guess here, though, that this won’t be the last time we discuss Barkley’s future.