When you think about Saquon Barkley, it is impossible not to think about the domino effect on the New York Giants’ franchise of Dave Gettleman’s decision to draft him No. 2 overall in 2018.
Gettleman could have stayed right there at No. 2 and started the team’s much-needed rebuild by drafting quarterback Josh Allen, who went No. 7 to the Buffalo Bills. He could have thought way outside the quarterback box and drafted Lamar Jackson, who went No. 32 to the Baltimore Ravens.
He could have taken three-time All-Pro guard Quentin Nelson at No. 2, backing his promise to fix the offensive line. He could have traded back a couple of spots, still gotten Nelson, and added a package of other picks and built the team’s talent base.
Instead, he got blinded by Barkley’s talent. He said that Barkley had been “touched by the hand of God” and that his mother could have scouted the former Penn State running back. He ignored the long-term need, the idea of drafting a quarterback to succeed Eli Manning, the reality that taking a running back at that point flew in the face of conventional wisdom, and the possibility of adding draft capital to try and build the roster.
Four years later, the mistake is obvious. The damage to the franchise still felt. None of that is on Barkley. He was everything as a rookie that Gettleman thought he would be. Injuries have derailed any possibility of him being that player since. The Giants have never won during Barkley’s time in New York. Now, Barkley’s future with the franchise is in doubt with a new general manager and coach arriving soon.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the Giants’ running back position.
2021 in review
Starter: Saquon Barkley
Backups: Devontae Booker
Fullbacks: Elijhaa Penny, Cullen Gillaspia
The 2021 season was not the triumphant return to health, and greatness, that the Giants and Barkley were hoping for.
The Giants tried to ease Barkley into action over the first four weeks of the season, as he carried 52 times for 186 yards, 3.57 yards per carry. Then, just when the Giants thought Barkley was reaching full health and comfort after his devastating 2020 knee, disaster struck. He stepped on the foot of a Dallas Cowboys defender, his ankle ballooned to grotesque proportions, he missed four games and was never the explosive player that he was before injuries started to pile up in 2019.
Over the last seven games, Barkley carried 102 times for 373 yards, 3.65 yards per carry. He finsihed the year with 593 yards on 162 carries, 3.7 yards per attempt. He averaged 6.4 yards on 41 receptions.
Devontae Booker, Barkley’s backup, also gained 592 yards. He did so on 145 carries, averaging 4.1 yards per rush. Booker averaged 6.7 yards on 40 receptions.
The Giants’ blocking for the run was less than adequate, with Football Outsiders ranking the offensive line 31st in run-blocked at 3.74 yards per rush. That lens has to be considered when looking at the final stats. Still, there were too many times during the season when Barkley would get ankle-tackled or dragged down by the first defender in the open field, something that did not happen in his pre-injury days.
Booker proved to be a capable alternative. In Weeks 8 and 9 with Barkley out, he posted back-to-back games of 125 and 122 total yards.
Sixth-round pick Gary Brightwell was almost exclusively a special teams player. He carried the ball once for 4 yards while playing just 12 offensive snaps. He played 195 special teams snaps before finishing the year on IR.
Fullback Elijhaa Penny saw the most touches of his four seasons with the Giants. He carried 24 times for 99 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and caught 9 passes for 30 yards. Penny played 142 offensive snaps and 273 special teams snaps, both the most of his time in New York.
Fullback Cullen Gillaspia was on the roster purely as a special teams player. He played just 4 offensive snaps, but was on the field for 257 special teams snaps over 15 games.
Penny (UFA); Gillaspia (RFA)
Mostly, this is about whether the incoming regime will want to go forward with Barkley as a center piece of the offense next season, or will want to explore trade options.
Barkley will still be only 25 next season. If — and after three injury-riddled seasons it is a big if — he can stay healthy there is no reason to think Barkley cannot be really good in 2022 and have several good seasons ahead of him. Maybe not the incredible Barkley we saw in 2018, but still an explosive runner and a guy who can be a weapon as a receiver.
Barkley said at the end of the season that he was looking forward to an offseason where he could train the way he wanted to train, not have to rehab a major injury and gingerly work his way back to the football field.
Will the new regime, though, decide that the best way to maximize Barkley’s current value to the franchise would be to find a trade partner and amass draft capital to try and add some much-needed talent? That move would also save the Giants from having to make a long-term decision on Barkley, although the franchise tag could be a 2023 option if he is still with the team.
Co-owner John Mara said recently that a Barkley decision would not be his. That the new coach and general manager would make that choice.
Booker carries a $3 million cap hit in 2022. The Giants can save $2 million of that by cutting him. Despite the productive year he had, you wonder if a new regime might choose to do that to create some financial flexibility.
As for Penny and Gillaspia, it seems unlikely the Giants would carry two fullbacks again. Will they even carry one? That’s anybody’s guess right now, so it is impossible to say if either of thes eplayer — Penny in particular — will be back.