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Is Saquon Barkley worth a large second contract?

There are pros and cons

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NFL: International Series-New York Giants at Green Bay Packers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not clear whether the New York Giants’ 2023 free agency spending is at or nearing its end. At some point, though, general manager Joe Schoen will have to deal with the contract situation of Saquon Barkley. It’s possible that he just leaves Barkley on the $10.1M non-exclusive franchise tag and lets him walk in 2024 in favor of a running back acquired in the draft (whether this year’s or next year’s). It’s also possible that he continues to try to negotiate a longer-term deal to retain Barkley. In light of what has happened in free agency, what is the best course to take?

The case for moving on from Barkley

2023 free agency has not been kind to Barkley’s apparent desire to be compensated somewhere closer to Christian McCaffrey’s $16M per year than the $12+M that Schoen was said to have offered him during the 2022 bye week and the possibly slightly more that he proposed after the Daniel Jones signing.

Here are the top 10 running back contracts by average annual value at the moment per Over The Cap:

Courtesy of Over The Cap

Barkley is tied for eighth with Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard, two other franchise-tagged RBs. Is Barkley a top five, or top three, RB in the NFL right now? It depends on how you look at things. Here is a chart from Pro Football Focus ranking the top NFL RBs for the 2022 season according to their PFF run grade and showing various relevant statistics for each:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

No. 1 on the list, Josh Jacobs, was franchised like Barkley, but he has a better case to make for a much higher salary based on many statistics: Yards gained, yards per attempt, TDs, yards after contact, missed tackles forced, and 10+ yard runs. So does Nick Chubb, forever linked to Barkley because he was taken in the second round of the same draft in which Barkley was chosen at No. 2 but only making $12.2M per year. Likewise for Derrick Henry, only making $12.5M per year. Miles Sanders, who just signed with Carolina for $6.35M per year, had a very similar season to Barkley in many respects.

So relative to his peers, the contract Barkley is seeking appears to be an overpay. On the other hand, the highest paid running back, Christian McCaffrey ($16.0M), does not appear at all on that list, nor does the second highest paid back, Alvin Kamara ($15M). More on that later.

One issue to be considered is that a running back needs help from his offensive line to thrive. Barkley has never had a great OL in front of him during his NFL career. Nick Chubb by comparison plays behind the Cleveland Browns’ line, one of the best in the NFL, and Miles Sanders ran for years behind what is probably the best OL in the NFL in Philadelphia.

To try to account for that, the figure below plots the PFF run grade for the leading rusher on each team against the run blocking grade for that team:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Points above and to the left of the 1:1 line are RBs who performed better than their OLs did on rushing plays. By that standard, the Giants’ OL did Barkley no favors, grading much lower in run blocking (60.5) than Barkley did in running the ball (81.0).

The thing is, that was true for most teams, i.e., there are more really good running backs in the NFL than there are run-blocking offensive lines. Running back is not a scarce commodity. There is just about no correlation between how well a running back fares and how good his offensive line is at blocking for him. That seems to be consistent with the “weak link” theory of football since there are five chances for an offensive lineman to mess up on any running play. The great running backs find ways to make it work regardless. The Chargers’ Austin Ekeler (83.2), for example, was almost 40 points better than his terrible (and extensively injured) offensive line (45.7) was in 2022. Ekeler ($6.1M per year) is seeking a trade because he wants to be paid with the highest paid RBs.

Based on these statistics, it is easy to see why Barkley wants a higher salary than the Giants offered. But it is also easy to make the case that he has no better argument than a number of other less well paid backs, and that with a surplus of excellent RBs in the league and coming out of college each year, the cost of a high-end contract is not worth the value.

The case for re-signing Barkley

The statistics above do not tell the whole story, though.

The chart shown near the top of this article for the top 2022 running backs is not for just the top eight backs. It is the complete list of NFL running backs who averaged 15 carries per game over the 17-game regular season. There were only eight. There were many more backs with higher PFF run grades than Barkley, but none of them were as integral to their team’s offense. McCaffrey and Kamara, the two highest paid running backs, didn’t carry the ball 15 times a game.

That’s what is immediately obvious to any fan that watches every Giants game but that Barkley is rarely given credit for. Barkley is a workhorse, shouldering much of the load for his team’s offense in a way that only a handful+ of other running backs do. Ekeler, as great as his 2022 was, only ran the ball 204 times, 69 percent of what Barkley did. Henry, Jacobs, and Chubb are the only ones who ran the ball more often. Subtract him and a big chunk of the Giants’ offense most likely disappears, whoever replaces him.

And Barkley is sure-handed. He fumbled only once all season (in the opener against Tennessee after a long gain, and the ball went out of bounds). Only Chubb among the high-workload backs matched that. Henry fumbled six times in the 2022 season, Ekeler five times. For his career, Barkley only has four fumbles.

The other important argument for re-signing Barkley is explosive plays. The philosophy of modern NFL offense is that explosive plays (i.e., plays that gain lots of yardage) are the key to offensive success. This is the basis for the concept of expected points added per play, the metric that is considered the gold standard in analytics circles.

The Giants did not have an explosive passing offense in 2022. But explosive plays come in different forms. Here are the team-by-team explosive play statistics for the 2022 regular season, with the non-playoff teams’ colors suppressed, as compiled by @SamHoppen. The top bold color part of each bar is passing plays, the bottom part rushing plays:

Courtesy of @SamHoppen

This chart uses a definition of explosive plays as 15+ yards for passing, 10+ for rushing. It suggests that (1) explosive plays increased the likelihood of a team making the playoffs in 2022, (2) the Giants’ offense under Daboll and Kafka was in the top half of the league in explosive plays despite not having many explosive passing plays, because their rushing offense was among the most dangerous in the league. The Giants trailed only Baltimore and Chicago, who coincidentally had the two most explosive running quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields, by noticeable amounts in explosive rushing plays.

The table near the top of this article shows that in 2022, Barkley was fifth in runs of 10+ yards, but second in number of “breakaway” runs of 15+ yards (first in yardage on breakaway runs, BAY). The Giants recognize that explosive plays rule the NFL today. That’s why they traded for Darren Waller and signed the speedy Parris Campbell and Jeff Smith. But that’s what Barkley gives the Giants in the running game, too.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Barkley’s fastest speed achieved as a rookie was 21.91 mph, tied for third highest among RBs that year. (The highest? Matt Breida at 22.09.) His 2022 best was “only” 21.31 mph, sixth best among running backs. He may have lost a step, but the reports of Barkley’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. He’s still an explosive back.

Are times changing in the NFL?

The arguments against re-signing Barkley at a high price are that rushing is no longer important in the NFL and so running back is not a high value position, and that an equally good back can be found at a much cheaper price in the draft. The first of these has been true for some years now, but it’s possible that the pendulum is beginning to swing back a bit:

  • Per Pro Football Reference, team passing in 2022 was 218.5 yards per game, the lowest since 2009 and 25.3 yards per game below the all-time high in 2015. Meanwhile, team rushing in 2022 was 121.6 yards per game, the highest since 1987.
  • That is happening because teams are calling more rushing plays, systematically so since 2018. Per Stathead:
Data from Stathead

The trend is not dramatic, but there has been a cumulative 2 percent shift from passing to rushing plays league-wide over the past five years, along with a slightly larger number of plays per drive and slightly longer drive times. We’re not exactly going back to the three yards and a cloud of dust era, but the signs point toward rushing becoming a more important part of team offense. Whether that is because of the spread of the two-high safety zone defense, more explosive running backs, or something else, is not clear, but it suggests a re-thinking of running back value.

The second argument, that you can always get a replacement at a cheaper price in the draft, is also true - if you pick the right one. Kenneth Walker III (1,050 yards, Round 2), Tyler Allgeier (1,035 yards, Round 5), Dameon Pierce (939 yards, Round 4), and Isiah Pacheco (830 yards, Round 7), all had terrific rookie years. And Breece Hall would probably have been right up there had he not been injured. But 23 running backs were drafted in all, and 14 of them gained 100 yards or less. You get one shot at a running back that will replace what Barkley does, not four or five.

Michael Lopez, the NFL’s Director of Data and Analytics, did a study of where to find “superstars” in the NFL draft (in the context of whether teams should trade up). His definition, the top 21-22 percent of players, is consistent with players who are voted to at least one Pro Bowl or All-Pro team in their careers and corresponds roughly to a career Approximate Value (AV) above the mid-60s. The superstar probability looks like this as a function of draft position:

Courtesy of StatsByLopez

There is less than a one in three chance that a player selected near the top of the draft becomes a superstar. Barkley, a No. 2 pick, has a career AV of 40, most of it accumulated in three seasons. If he stays healthy for three more years he will have justified his controversial selection by this standard. The Lopez superstar probability curve says that once you get well into Round 2, the chance of finding a superstar replacement drops to less than 10 percent.

The other, less quantifiable, quality about Barkley is the status he holds among the Giants’ players. Until now, Barkley has been the go-to player on the Giants’ offense, and the only one who carries himself like a star and who is viewed that way by his teammates.

The Giants have counted on Barkley to win games for them at crucial times. Sometimes with great plays, such as the two-point conversion he made against Tennessee when it looked like he’d be tackled well short of the goal line, and the winning TD he scored in the playoff game in Minnesota by dragging Dalvin Tomlinson into the end zone. And sometimes in more ordinary but heroic ways, such as his taking over the offense for 31 carries and 146 yards against Chicago (which also included his spectacular reverse-field run) and 35 carries for 152 yards against Houston. The Giants have added another big offensive playmaker in Darren Waller, but the best teams have a few.

Here’s the conundrum with Barkley. Let’s look at his career stats relative to those of the two RBs to whom he is most often compared, Chubb and McCaffrey. We’ll use rushing yards over expected, a Next Gen Stats metric based on player tracking data relative to defenders, yards after contact on rushing plays, and yards after catch on receiving plays as measures of what running backs themselves add to their team’s offensive success:

Data from Next Gen Stats and Pro Football Focus

Choose one comparison and you’ll come up with a different answer as to which running back is most valuable to his team going forward:

  • Chubb has clearly been the most durable RB of the three, having missed only a few games in 2020 due to an MCL sprain and in 2021 due to a calf strain and a positive COVID test. Barkley and McCaffrey on the other hand have suffered debilitating injuries that compromised both players’ 2020 and 2021 seasons, and part of 2019 for Barkley as well.
  • That said, Barkley has less normal wear and tear on his body overall, having had several hundred fewer carries than either of the other two (McCaffrey entered the league in 2017 and had 244 carries that year, which are not included in the chart above). A study by the Northwestern University Analytics Group concluded that elite RBs tend to hit the wall at about age 29 on average. Barkley is 26, Chubb and McCaffrey a year older.
  • McCaffrey is clearly the most utilized receiver of the three, having had 50 percent more receptions the past five years than Barkley and three times more than Chubb, who is an afterthought in the Browns’ passing game. McCaffrey is also used more as a receiver past the line of scrimmage, as can be seen from his higher average depth of target (ADOT).

So as a pure rusher, Chubb has been the best of the three, McCaffrey has been best as a receiver, and Barkley is in the middle but is the youngest and with the most tread on his tires. What is a fair contract value given Chubb’s $12.2M per year and McCaffrey’s $16.0M? There is no obvious answer.

The bottom line

It may all be a moot point. Schoen has committed to substantial sums of money in new contracts in the past couple of weeks. More are coming later this year with extensions of other top-tier players such as Dexter Lawrence looming. A multi-year contract could have the advantage of lessening Barkley’s 2023 cap hit, but at the cost of greater cap hits in future years. Schoen may just decide that a multi-year contract at a price Barkley will accept is just not workable. If that turns out to be the case, though, something will have been lost that is not as easily replaced as some have imagined.