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Playing to Saquon Barkley’s strengths in 2022

Make defenders hit him where he ain’t

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Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants
Saquon Barkley during his 229-yard game vs. Philadelphia in 2018
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Much of the discussion surrounding Saquon Barkley centers around the New York Giants’ decision to draft him at No. 2 four years ago and the injuries that have limited him since his rookie year. Neither of those things matters to Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka. They are in the past, and occurred under a different general manager and coaches.

Daboll and Kafka are looking forward, asking themselves how they might best utilize his talents in 2022. Their answers may be exciting, because they seem to recognize that Barkley is not a traditional power, punishing, Derrick Henry-type running back. He is a back who wants to make defenders miss. That means getting him into space.

In his profile of Saquon Barkley last week, Ed Valentine said,

One thing we have seen throughout spring practices is that head coach Brian Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, who come from successful, creative offenses, are having fun scheming up ways to use Barkley’s skillset.

Barkley has often lined up and been targeted as a wide receiver, he’s been in the slot, he has been thrown the ball out of the backfield. The emphasis for the new Giants’ offense seems to be spreading the field and giving playmakers space to operate.

We don’t know if Barkley will ever again be the back he was before his string of injuries. But he professes to feeling much better this year than last. And whatever one thinks of the Giants selecting him No. 2 in 2018, he was a 2,000-yard back that season with 15 TDs, and despite his first injury, a 1,400-yard back with eight TDs the year after. In 2018 he forced 40 missed tackles on running plays, ninth in the NFL, and 31 on receptions, eight more than any other player in the NFL (RB, TE, or WR), according to Pro Football Focus. The one time Daboll saw Barkley in action in person, he had 18 carries for 107 yards and a 27-yard TD against his former team in 2019.

It’s interesting to look back at those more successful seasons to get an idea of how his usage has changed over time, how it compares to some of the most successful running backs in the NFL, and what clues that might give us about how he could be used in the 2022 season to exploit his strengths.

The Shurmur years vs. the Judge years

Like other skill players on the Giants’ offense (Daniel Jones, Darius Slayton), Saquon Barkley was more productive under Pat Shurmur in 2018-2019 than under Joe Judge with Jason Garrett/Freddie Kitchens calling the plays in 2020-2021. Here are some season rushing stats from PFF:

Obviously a lot of the difference between the first two years and last year (we’ll ignore 2020, when Barkley hardly played) is a result of his injuries. Of course he was injured during part of 2019 too but still put up pretty good numbers. It’s tempting to say that it’s also a product of the Giants’ offensive line failures. But the offensive line was not all that terrible in run blocking last year (64.0 PFF run block grade, 12th-lowest in the NFL, vs. 62.3, 13th-lowest in 2018). Five 2021 playoff teams had lower PFF run block grades (Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Las Vegas, Arizona).

So either it’s the severity and/or cumulative impact of Barkley’s injuries. Or the limitations of the player himself. Or the play designs and calls. All of these have changed over the course of Barkley’s career. But perhaps there are some hints in the details of his performance and his usage.

Let’s compare Barkley’s 2018-2019 seasons to those of the top 10 NFL running backs in rushing yardage for 2021 (all data from PFF):

Seven of the 10 leading rushers ran behind teams whose offensive line ranked in the top 10 in PFF run blocking in 2021. The three that didn’t (Joe Mixon, Najee Harris, Dalvin Cook) ran behind lines whose run block grade was similar to that of the 2018 (and 2021) Giants. So, quality of the OL probably contributes but is not the whole answer.

Yards per rushing attempt (YPA) in 2021 ranged from 3.9-5.5 for the top 10 running backs. Barkley’s YPA was 5.0 in 2018 and 4.6 in 2019. It dropped off to 3.7 in 2021, but even that would place him just outside the range for the top 10 backs.

A more interesting statistic is yards after contact per attempt (YCO/A). Barkley has been criticized as a back who goes down as soon as he is hit. The basis for this criticism is not clear. Perhaps people have forgotten this play. The statistics say something different. Barkley’s YCO/A was 3.34 in 2018 and 3.23 in 2019. For the top 10 2021 NFL rushers, the range was 2.73-4.24.

A related statistic is missed tackles forced (MTF). Barkley had 40 MTFs on running plays in 2018 and 42 in 2019 (when he only played 12 complete games). The top 10 2021 backs ranged from 19-66. Barkley may not be Derrick Henry or Jonathan Taylor as a runner, but when healthy he has clearly been a top 10 running back.

Comparing Barkley’s YPA to his YCO/A, we see that before first contact, on average Barkley gained 1.7 yards in 2018, 1.4 yards in 2019, but only 1.0 yards in 2021. That could be an indicator of his becoming more indecisive in hitting a hole as his injuries piled up. But all the plays last year in which Barkley was hit in the backfield at almost the same moment he was getting the ball point to the offensive line deficiencies. What would the YPA be for a Barkley that gets past the line of scrimmage before a defender can get his hands on him?

What style of rushing attack would best use Barkley’s skills?

The statistics above may also have something to do with play design. NFL teams use mixes of zone and power/gap blocking schemes for rushing attempts, although certain teams emphasize one over the other. The chart below from PFF show that in 2021, New England was mostly a power/gap team regardless of who ran the ball, while Washington was mostly a zone blocking team. The Giants were balanced between zone and power/gap, a bit more of the latter when Devontae Booker got the ball and a bit more of the former when Barkley had the ball.

That’s different from the Shurmur years, when the Giants were mostly a zone team (e.g., 176 zone vs. 78 power/gap rushes for Barkley in 2018).

PFF also has statistics on run direction, classified as indicated in the schematic below:

LE, RE indicate outside runs to either side, while LT, RT (presumably) combine runs between the tackle and in-line tight end with outside runs to the weak side. Barkley was primarily an inside runner (LG+ML+MR+RG = 97 attempts, vs. LE+LT+RT+RE = 65) in 2021:

Barkley had some success running inside last year. Oddly, despite Andrew Thomas’ resurgence last year in pass blocking (82.1 PFF grade), his run block grade remained pedestrian (68.5). Maybe this was a result of his ongoing ankle problem. In any case, running inside would not seem to be the best way to exploit a back like Barkley’s strengths. In 2018 under Shurmur, Barkley ran almost equally inside (131 attempts) vs. outside (129 attempts), and with better results outside overall as indicated by his high YPA and YCO/A and the explosive plays he had on outside rushes:

(In the chart above, JS-L indicates a jet sweep toward the left side, the only one Barkley has ever run in his NFL career. Count on that to change in 2022.) In 2022, Barkley will be running behind two tackles who were much better at zone blocking than power/gap blocking in college. According to Mike Renner’s PFF Draft Guide, Andrew Thomas graded in the 91st percentile in zone blocking vs. the 66th percentile in power/gap blocks, while Evan Neal graded in the 85th percentile for zone and 62nd for power/gap. An outside zone rushing attack is better suited to Barkley’s talents for making defenders miss.

Zone blocking includes both inside and outside zone, but don’t be surprised if Barkley’s 2022 rushing patterns look more like how Shurmur used him than Garrett’s use, with a greater use of outside runs. In particular, with free agent guard Mark Glowinski being a better run blocker than pass blocker, we might anticipate a steady dose of Barkley running to the right side behind Glowinski and Neal.

Barkley as a threat in the passing game

Just as for rushing, here are Saquon Barkley’s career PFF stats for receiving:

As for rushing, a good bit of the year-to-year difference is due to Barkley’s injuries. But unlike for rushing, the pass blocking contributed to this. In 2018, the Giants’ offensive line was ranked 25th by PFF in pass blocking (66.2 grade), and in 2019 it was actually 17th, with a grade of 71.5. In 2021, though, the offensive line was 30th in the NFL with a grade of 52.9. We tend to think of the GIants’ OL as having been bad for a long time, but it performed respectably though not exceptionally in the Shurmur era.

Barkley’s own performance in the passing game, though, seems to have declined over the years as well. He was actually an elite receiver as a rookie (PFF 86.3 receiving grade), dropping only 5 percent of his passes. He was not as good a receiver in 2019, though he still only dropped 5 percent of his passes, but by 2021, he had become a subpar receiver, with a drop percentage in the teens. Did the injuries cause him to lose focus or confidence? Or were the pass routes last year not optimal for his skill set?

For comparison, here are the 2021 receiving statistics for the top 10 RBs ranked by receiving yardage:

2018 Barkley out-gained every 2021 NFL RB in receiving yards and also had a higher PFF grade than all of them. His 787 YAC was more than 100 yards greater than any back had last season. His YAC per reception and YAC per route run would have easily placed him in the top 10 in 2021.

But there is one big difference between 2018 Barkley and the top 2021 RBs. Comparing the 2021 rushing and receiving top 10 lists, only one RB appears on both lists - Najee Harris. The Barkley that took the NFL by storm in 2018 was at least the equal of today’s top 10 in both rushing and receiving, and only one other back in the NFL could make that claim in 2021 (a healthy Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara would probably have been there also based on their past performance).

This is where positional value arguments about running backs fall short. The NFL is now a passing league, and as a result running backs are devalued. But a running back who is an elite receiver has increased value. Today’s top RBs are generally considered to be Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, and Jonathan Taylor. Barkley is not their equal as a rusher. But they are not his equal as a pass receiver.

Yes, but running backs mostly catch screen passes or dump-offs behind the line of scrimmage. They’re not really receivers, you say. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As the quote from Ed’s post at the top of this piece indicates, the Giants lined Barkley up as a true wide receiver on a variety of routes quite a bit during OTAs.

Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders makes the case that Barkley should be used more as a pass receiver. Here is his chart of Barkley’s production as a pass receiver lined up in the slot or out wide thus far in his career:

29 targets in four years is not much, though Tanier points out that his four targets in only two games played in 2020 suggests that Jason Garrett may have had plans to increase Barkley’s receiving role that season. Here is Tanier’s chart from the same article showing the teams that most often lined RBs up in the slot or wide in 2021:

The Falcons had Cordarrelle Patterson, who is at best a hybrid WR-RB. But the totals for the other four teams suggest that it is possible to be more creative with the use of running backs with moves and speed to make explosive plays in the passing game.

Barkley has rarely been used as a true receiver well beyond the line of scrimmage in his career. In four seasons he has only been targeted a total of four times on intermediates routes (10-19 yards) and 10 times on deep routes (20+ yards). He has six catches in those 14 targets, and a pedestrian completion rate of 43 percent (by comparison, Ja’Marr Chase, Davante Adams, and Tyreek Hill have intermediate/deep catch rates of 55-58 percent).

But he also has four TDs on the four deep catches he did make - most recently, the 54-yard TD reception that was crucial to the GIants’ victory over the Saints last season. Barkley showed on that play that he still can make moves in the open field that make even good defenders look silly (in this case, four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore).

There is one other aspect to the passing game that we can look at: pass blocking. Barkley has become notorious as a poor pass blocker, and his 2021 pass block grade (34.3) confirms this. But Barkley was not always such a terrible blocker: He had a 54.0 pass blocking grade in 2018 and an acceptable 63.4 in 2019.

Furthermore, a number of his fellow RBs are also bad as pass blockers. Among the top 10 2021 rushers, Jonathan Taylor had a 31.2 pass block grade, Joe Mixon graded 31.5, Antonio Gibson 45.4, and Ezekiel Elliott 38.1. There is the occasional great running back who is also a great pass blocker, like Nick Chubb (80.5 pass block grade in 2021). But for the most part, the list of highest graded pass blocking RBs is a list of backup RBs.

We don’t know whether Saquon Barkley will ever return to his 2018 form after his multiple injuries. If he can’t, a version somewhere in between his 2018 and 2019 selves would still be a dangerous and valuable component of a top-flight offense. Used in an optimal way, 2022 may be the season in which that Barkley re-emerges. Would it be enough to change the discussion about the Giants using a No. 2 pick on him? Would it at least affect the discussion about whether to pursue a second contract for him?