Saquon Barkley’s unresolved long-term contract situation means that the New York Giants have to prepare for the possibility that Barkley will be gone in 2024. Even his status for 2023 is uncertain given reports that he will not sign the franchise tag before OTAs. Nick Falato has written about possible Day 2 options for the Giants to select a running back in this year’s draft. If the Giants address other positions in the first three rounds of the draft, though, running back may have to wait until Day 3. Who might be available then?
Running back is a devalued position in the NFL because of the emergence of the passing game in the past 10-15 years, fueled by rule changes that protect quarterbacks and receivers and innovative offensive concepts by the NFL’s best coaches. But as we noted in a previous article, the balance is starting to shift back a little toward the running game. This may be a reaction to the two-high safety defenses that are spreading across the league to discourage explosive passing plays. Opposing offenses are increasingly being presented with light boxes that invite the run if teams can exploit them. So running back should not be an afterthought for the Giants.
Ideally, the Giants and Barkley work out a deal that will keep him here for the next three seasons. People underestimate how valuable Barkley is to the Giants, as both an explosive playmaker (second in the NFL among running backs in 2022) and a back who can get tough yards inside. He’s an asset as a pass catcher, and in 2022 he even improved as a pass protector. It will be difficult to replace all of those with a Day 3 pick if Barkley is not a Giant going forward, but let’s try, anyway.
What should the Giants be looking for?
Here are the 2023 running back prospects who may be available on Day 3, from the NFL Mock Draft Database consensus big board:
This list excludes Bijan Robinson (No. 12), Jahmyr Gibbs (No. 35), Zach Charbonnet (No. 55), Devon Achane (No. 64), and Tyjae Spears (No. 76), all of them Day 1 or 2 prospects and several of whom are already discussed in Nick’s article.
Unlike quarterbacks, NFL-worthy running backs are plentiful, especially in this year’s draft. We’re looking for a potential 2024 replacement for Barkley, a “bell cow” who plays all three downs and can take on a big workload, but is also capable of explosive plays.
Things become easier if Barkley is back and forms a 1-2 punch with the back the Giants draft, much as Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard did for the Dallas Cowboys for a few years. The Giants still have Matt Breida and Gary Brightwell, who have performed adequately when called upon to spell Barkley and even occasionally in three-back sets. But we’re looking for an upgrade from these players.
Here are the skills we are looking for:
- The strength to gain yards inside behind a gap/power blocking scheme to attack those light boxes. Barkley was used more with zone blocking in his two seasons under Pat Shurmur, but in 2022 he ran more behind gap/power blocking, per Pro Football Focus:
- Good contact balance to gain yards after initial contact, especially to gain first downs, and to break tackles
- Speed and acceleration through the hole to create explosive plays
- Field awareness and vision to avoid defenders
- Sure-handedness to avoid fumbles
Ideally we’d like other things too, e.g., receiving capability and blocking skill. The farther into the draft the Giants get the less likely they are to find a back with such a diverse skill set. None of the backs discussed below can replace Barkley by themselves if he is no longer a Giant. But any one of them might be a productive complement to him in 2023 if he plays and part of an effective running back rotation in 2024 if he is gone.
Early Day 3 candidates
With such a deep running back class and seven picks on Day 3, I’d prefer that the Giants not use their Round 4 (No. 128) pick on a running back. It’s a tough call. In the past two drafts combined, there have been a total of only 10 running backs selected in Rounds 1-3, but 9 chosen in Round 4 alone. Clearly, early Day 3 is where the run on backs begins (pun intended).
If the Giants really want to make a move in Round 4, the player I would bang the table for is Zach Evans of Mississippi (No. 112). Evans transferred to Ole Miss after two years at TCU and averaged 6.5 yards per carry with 9 touchdowns. (For comparison, Barkley averaged 5.9 yards per carry his final year at Penn State.) As a rule running backs tend to drop below their big board rankings for positional value reasons. So there’s a chance Evans may be there at No. 128.
Evans has the footwork to turn upfield quickly on outside runs, the acceleration to break through holes and reach the second level quickly, excellent speed to outrun linebackers and defensive backs once he does, great contact balance to keep plays going, and the power to get tough yards after first contact before going down. He routinely makes defenders miss. You can see all these qualities in his 2022 highlights. His testing numbers attest to his potential for explosive plays:
Zach Evans is a RB prospect in the 2023 draft class. He scored a 8.72 #RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 222 out of 1723 RB from 1987 to 2023. https://t.co/ybpmdpwV7o pic.twitter.com/syxooRFOTA— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 8, 2023
Kendre Miller (No. 116), Evans’ former TCU teammate, would be another excellent choice, having averaged 6.2 yards per carry with 17 touchdowns. Miller and Evans are very similar running backs. Miller is bigger (215 lbs vs. 202 for Evans). Evans turns the corner better, Miller explodes through the hole better. Watch Miller’s 2022 highlights, compare them to Evans’, and decide for yourself. I expect both to become productive NFL backs. Miller is ranked only slightly lower than Evans on the consensus big board, so there’s a decent chance that one or both of them are still available at No. 128. Miller did not test at the Combine or a Pro Day.
One other thing in favor of Zach Evans and Kendre Miller (h/t to @KSIXI, whose tweet alerted me to this figure) - neither player benefited much from strong offensive line play in front of him in 2022:
Strength of team run blocking in college amongst this year’s RB class pic.twitter.com/vtvF6vwhP2— Football Insights (@fball_insights) April 12, 2023
Beyond these two backs, there are other good possibilities who should be available in the late rounds, including Sean Tucker of Syracuse (No. 143), Eric Gray of Oklahoma (No. 148), and Israel Abanikanda of Pitt (No. 151). Gray is more about elusiveness and speed than inside power; of the three he has the most potential to create explosive plays but the least to get tough short yardage. Tucker and Abanikanda are primarily single-cut runners with good acceleration once they hit the hole.
The big board above shows only running back prospects that rank within the top 259, the total number of picks in this year’s draft. Here’s the rest of the consensus big board:
It would be wrong to ignore these players. NFL history is filled with seventh round and undrafted running backs who went on to have great careers. For Giants fans, Ahmad Bradshaw immediately comes to mind. Priest Holmes and Philip Lindsay are other examples. Seventh-round rookie Isaiah Pacheco became the lead back in Kansas City’s offense last season, supplanting former first round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Matt Waldman, who publishes the Rookie Scouting Portfolio every year, does a really thorough analysis of skill position prospects. Here are a couple of players that Waldman sees as being underrated. Both rank highly in many categories in Waldman’s analysis, yet both could easily be there in Round 7, when the Giants have three picks, and very well might not be drafted at all:
Tiyon Evans (ranked No. 287) transferred to Louisville from Tennessee for the 2022 season. He doesn’t have the explosiveness of backs like Zach Evans or Kendre Miller, as can be seen in his testing scores, but he hits the hole quickly, has good speed once he gets past the first level, and shows good power and excellent balance, as can be seen in his 2022 highlights. Waldman sees him as a back with third down potential.
Tiyon Evans is a RB prospect in the 2023 draft class. He scored a 6.76 #RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 561 out of 1727 RB from 1987 to 2023. https://t.co/jUIvy9NT2D pic.twitter.com/wWxtRvYpbd— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 9, 2023
Christopher Brooks (No. 476) transferred from Cal to Brigham Young for the 2022 season. I couldn’t find a 2022 highlight film other than two individual plays, but his 2021 highlights from Cal are impressive. Brooks was mostly used running inside, and sometimes in the passing game. He has reasonable speed once he gets through the hole, but his game is power. On tape he consistently breaks tackles and drags would-be tacklers with him to gain extra yards, and he never fumbled in college.
Barring a surprise selection near the top of the draft, the Giants will likely have to replace Saquon Barkley with a running back-by-committee approach in 2024 if they cannot agree on a long-term contract. Fortunately the 2023 draft will give them many options for doing that, plus insurance for this year. It’s just a matter of when, not whether, the Giants select a running back in the 2023 draft.