After his spectacular 2,028 total yards from scrimmage rookie season, he was SAQUON BARKLEY. He was the “touched by the hand of God” No. 2 overall pick who had won Offensive Rookie of the Year and was seemingly en route to a historic Hall of Fame NFL career.
After that season, the New York Giants running back was the 16th-ranked player on the 2019 NFL.com top 100 players list, voted on by his peers. And he deserved it.
- In 2018, he had become one of just three rookies to surpass 2,000 scrimmage yards.
- He made the Pro Bowl.
- He set the rookie record for receptions by a running back with 91.
- He had an NFL rookie record 12 games with 100 or more yards from scrimmage.
- He had five touchdowns of 50 or more yards, tying Randy Moss for the rookie record.
Barkley was, in short, phenomenal. He was a phenom. A force of nature. The new Barry Sanders.
Barkley is an afterthought when discussing the best NFL players. He is a “maybe he can be great again” guy. Barkley is nowhere to be found on those “best” lists. You won’t even find him anywhere the top of best running back lists, like this one or this one.
Injuries and incompetence around him have robbed him of the luster of the SAQUON BARKLEY days. Now, he is just Saquon Barkley. He still wears the “26” earring. He still has the massive quads. He still draws a crowd when he speaks to the media. He still largely carries the hopes of a Giants franchise begging for something to feel good about after an awful decade of football.
Barkley, though, also carries a lot of questions around on his broad shoulders.
Can he be great again? Does the 2018 Barkley still exist? Playing 2022 on his fifth-year option, can he convince a Giants’ regime that did not draft him that he can be part of the team’s future? At a time when we are seeing big second contract for running backs often turn into Fool’s Gold, how much money is he worth?
There is only one place Barkley can answer those questions. On the football field, where he has to stay healthy and show that writing him off at the age of 25 is foolish. Since Game 3 of the 2019 season, when he suffered a high ankle sprain, we have only seen glimpses of a truly healthy Barkley. There was the devastating 2020 knee injury, and another ankle injury last season just when Barkley seemed to finding his footing.
Can that change in 2022?
Injuries, of course, are impossible to predict. Asked on Wednesday how he feels, though, the twinkle in his eye and the Barkley smile spoke volumes.
“I’ll tell you, I feel a lot better than I felt at this point last year. Like you said, I was rehabbing. My body feels good. My body feels strong. Feel like I got my strength back. Feel like I got my speed back. Feel like I can trust my knee again, trust myself to make plays and not think about it,” Barkley said.
“My body feels really good.”
That might be the best news of the entire spring for the Giants. Whether Barkley has a long-term future with the team or not.
There was plenty of pre-draft speculation that the cap-strapped, rebuilding Giants would use Barkley as a trade chip to help their cap situation and accumulate draft capital to replenish a needy roster.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, new GM Joe Schoen said he was “open to everything” and that he would “certainly listen” to offers for anyone on the roster.
Obviously, the Giants ultimately decided that the best path forward was Barkley to at least begin 2022 with the team. Would Schoen be willing to pay Barkley big money if he shows something close to his 2018 form in 2022?
“We’ll see,” Schoen said this winter at the NFL Scouting Combine. “In free agency it’s not what the player was, it’s what’s he going to be this year. That’s what you’ve got to evaluate, and I think there’s some unknown. But I think everyone can say when the kid’s healthy he’s one of the best backs in the league.”
There is still a question of whether or not Schoen and the Giants will ever get to the point of having to make that financial decision.
Perhaps, if Barkley gets off to a hot start in 2022 and rebuilds his value, the best move for the long term will be get as much in return for him as the Giants can at the trade deadline. That might, honestly, also be best for Barkley.
There is little doubt that the injuries, the losing, the questions, the weight of being the face of a floundering franchise, have had an impact on Barkley.
“To be honest, I’m just tired of whatever is written about me, the BS that’s said about me or this team,” Barkley said earlier this offseason. “I want to go out there and prove to this organization that the player they drafted is still there, I can still do special things with the ball in my hands, and I can help this team.
“One thing I’ve learned is the story that’s going to be told is people are going to shape it the way they want it to be told. I feel like there’s a lot of things that are left out ... I’m just tired of BS. Just want to go out there, play the game I love, and have fun with my teammates.”
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. Barkley is, obviously, central to that.
“I think Saquon is a unique guy. You move him in different spots,” Daboll said. “He’s got good hands, he’s a good route runner, a good runner. Try to use him the best way we can.
“I see a talented player. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Barkley told reporters he hasn’t moved around the formation this much since his Penn State days and added that “I was OK in college.”
“I’m very excited. I think this offense is going to put our playmakers in position to make plays, whether it’s post-snap, pre-snap, just giving us looks so we can good out there and let our talent go and work,” Barkley said. “I’m excited not only for myself but for all the playmakers on this team, for the offensive line, for the team in general. I feel like we have something special here.”
Whether the Giants have something special remains to be seen. As does what Barkley’s role in that future will be.
Still, seeing how the Giants are using him and how well he appears to be moving around, and hearing how good he feels after a healthy offseason are all positive signs.