Saquon Barkley is a textbook case of the devaluation of the running back position across the NFL. Drafted No. 2 overall by the New York Giants in 2018, his lengthy injury history following an outstanding rookie season diminished his production. His 2022 season showcased both how valuable he could be and how to stop him.
Now embroiled in a contract standoff with the Giants, Barkley is not listed on the team’s depth chart. Still, barring an unforeseen disaster, he will be the starting running back for the team come Week 1. The question is if it will be on the franchise tag or via a contract extension.
By the numbers
Position: Running back
Contract: one-year, $10,091,000 franchise tag (not signed) | 2023 cap hit: $10,091,000
Career to date
Barkley took the NFL by storm in his rookie season. He rushed for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns and recorded 91 receptions for 721 yards and another four touchdowns through the air. This resulted in Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and a Pro Bowl selection.
Barkley returned with another 1,000-yard rushing season in Year 2, but he missed three games due to a high-ankle sprain. It was an uneven year for Barkley, who’s 4.6 yards per carry total masked the fact that he cleared the 4.0 mark in only four of his final 10 games following the injury. His passing-game impact was reduced, as well, as he posted 52 receptions for 438 yards and two touchdowns through the air. His Pro Football Focus grade slipped from 85.2 as a rookie to 72.2.
In 2020, Barkley tore his ACL and strained his MCL in Week 2, knocking him out for the entire season. He returned in 2021 but was clearly missing his explosiveness, as he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in 13 games and scored only two rushing touchdowns. He gained 263 yards through the air on 41 receptions with two air scores.
Barkley rebounded last season to rush for 1,312 yards at a 4.4 yards-per-carry clip and 10 rushing touchdowns. He added 57 catches for 338 yards through the air. This earned him a Pro Bowl selection and helped him finish third in the AP Comeback Player of the Year Award voting. His PFF grade rebounded from 60.3 in 2021 to 77.2.
Still, there were some less-than-ideal signs for Barkley in 2022. After posting 23 rushes of 10+ yards through his first nine games played, he had only 12 in his last nine games (regular and postseason). His yards per carry average stood at 4.8 through the first eight games, but he had just 4.0 yards per carry the rest of the regular season.
In Barkley’s two postseason games, he had just 31 rushing yards combined on non-breakaways (rushes of 15+ yards), making him the ultimate boom-or-bust back despite a robust 6.3 yards per carry.
Furthermore, Barkley is no longer doing it on his own. As a rookie, he averaged 3.34 yards after contact per attempt (YCO), per PFF, which ranked sixth out of 47 backs with at least 100 rush attempts. That reduced slightly to 3.23 and a ninth ranking in 2019 before plummeting to 2.69 and 38th out of 50 in 2021.
In 2022, though, Barkley posted 2.78 YCO per attempt during the regular season, which tied for 27th out of 42 qualified backs. His ability to create beyond his offensive line on a regular basis is still not close to what it once was.
Although Barkley is still perceived as a dominant running back in the league, his 2022 stats showed worrisome signs for his future. He is not the same explosive player that he was prior to injury. That does not mean he is a bad player; it just means he can’t do it all himself.
Part of this is also due to usage. Barkley started the season strong but wore down as his touches increased. He had 313 rushing attempts and 57 receptions for a total of 370 touches in 2022 between the regular season and postseason. That is the exact barrier at which research indicates that the careers of running backs are known to significantly decline.
Drafting Eric Gray in the fifth round was likely meant to ease Barkley’s workload. Gray averaged 3.43 YCO per attempt last season, which tied for 45th out of 146 FBS backs (min. 100 rush attempts). He gives the Giants another dynamic threat in the backfield. This, in turn, can also help keep Barkley fresh as the season progresses.
Furthermore, with the additions of Darren Waller, Parris Campbell, and Jalin Hyatt this offseason, the Giants figure to do some more passing in the early going. The team was set up as a run-first offense for much of 2023 because Barkley was clearly their best offensive player. Now, they have others to shoulder some of the workload and also open space for him. Adding John Michael Schmitz up the middle could also be a big blessing for Barkley.
With all of these factors, if Barkley can stay healthy, there is reason to believe that he can post a more consistent and efficient 2023 season, even if it is less flashy from a total production standpoint.