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Better or worse? For Giants, question at running back is about Saquon Barkley

Will the Giants get the superstar Barkley in 2022, or the injury-plagued, under-productive player of the last couple of seasons?

New York Giants Mandatory Minicamp
Saquon Barkley
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The New York Giants wanted to be a run-first team in 2021. Only they couldn’t run block, finishing 31st in Football Outsiders’ run-blocking stat, Adjusted Line Yards. They played six games with Mike Glennon or Jake Fromm at quarterback, meaning the forward pass was only a rumor in their offense. Oh, and Saquon Barkley got hurt again.

As we continue our position by position look at the 2022 Giants entering training camp, we now turn our attention to the running back position.

Key additions: Matt Breida, Antonio Williams, Jashaun Corbin
Key losses: Devontae Booker, Elijhaa Penny, Cullen Gillaspia

Why the Giants could be better

Truthfully, this is all about Barkley. Can he turn the clock back? Can he be the special, game-wrecking player we saw in 2018 and at times in 2019 as he battled through a high ankle sprain?

This isn’t complicated. If Barkley can be that guy, a reasonable facsimile of that guy, the Giants will be better at the running back. They will be a better, more explosive offense than they have been the last couple of seasons.

In 2021, Barkley had just 593 rushing yards and averaged a career-worsts of 3.7 yards per carry and 45.6 rushing yards per game. Football Outsiders had Barkley 45th in DYAR among backs with 100 or more carries (-56), 45th in DVOA (-17.5 percent) and 48th in success rate (43 percent). Per Pro Football Focus, Barkley was 43rd in the league among 61 qualifiers in yards after contact per rush (2.69). He was 39th of those 61 qualifiers in missed tackles forced (20).

Those numbers don’t read like the work of a great running back.

Barkley admitted this spring that coming off a major 2020 knee injury and then suffering an ankle sprain that cost him four games, he knew he wasn’t the pre-injury Barkley.

“When you can trust your body, your confidence just grows,” Barkley said. “I would say the difference was I was a way more confident player in college and early in my career than I was prior to the last year and then last year. Now I’m starting to get that back, starting to get that swagger back.”

Barkley has been able to train fully this offseason rather than rehab and slowly work his way back from his torn ACL. Barkley was a full on-field participant during the Giants’ spring practices this offseason, whereas a season ago he did not practice in the spring and was a limited participant in training camp.

The difference shows.

Yes, Barkley is undeniably in outstanding physical condition.

Barkley, who is still only 25, looked explosive in the spring.

“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. “Even when you feel like you trust yourself, like actually going back and watching film, it correlates with how you feel and what you’re actually seeing, putting out there on the field.”

When talking about Barkley’s potential 2022 production, we have to consider the Brian Daboll/Mike Kafka factor. The Giants showed the potential in the spring to run a much different offense than we saw under Pat Shurmur or during the Joe Judge/Jason Garrett era.

It is true that Barkley caught a record-setting 91 passes as a rookie, but how many of those were impact plays vs. desperation dump-offs at or around the line of scrimmage when there was no place else to throw the ball?

The Daboll-Kafka offense showed much more motion, much more flexibility in terms of aligning players in different spots. For Barkley, that meant lining up as a wide or slot receiver, and also catching the ball frequently as a primary target out of the backfield.

Barkley said this spring that he hasn’t moved around the formation this much since his days at Penn State.

“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,” he 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.”

The possibility of a healthy Barkley with the ball in his hands and space to work should excite Giants fans. If he stays healthy, we might see the best Barkley we have seen since 2019.

Why the Giants could be worse

Well, this is the “what is Saquon gets hurt again?” section of our story.

If Barkley is limited by injury again, there is no Devontae Booker on the roster like there was a season ago. There is no Wayne Gallman, like there was in 2020.

Matt Breida is a nice change-of-pace back, and he does have a 4.9 yards per carry average over five NFL seasons. Breida, though, has carried the ball only 85 times the past two seasons. Breida did carry the ball more than 100 times in each of his first three seasons, but has not done so since 2018.

Antonio Williams spent two seasons on the Buffalo Bills practice squad, getting in one game. We have no idea at this point in 2021 sixth-round pick Gary Brightwell can emerge as a true NFL running back and not just a special teams player. Jashaun Corbin is an intriguing undrafted free agent, but an unknown at the pro level.

Another Barkley injury would put the Giants in the position of depending on someone to emerge and be more than they are expected to be at this point. There is no guarantee that would happen.