Saquon Barkley is not worth a contract that guarantees more than $22 million.
Or at least, that’s what the cold, hard numbers say. Some would like to pretend that football is a sport played on paper, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
The New York Giants are engaged in contract talks with their captain and former top draft pick. GM Joe Schoen has indicated in both actions and words that he has a walk-away number. The question is where that number lies, whether Barkley will concur, and if John Mara will stand aside in negotiations with a team leader.
Still, at the core of these negotiations is the belief on Barkley’s part that he is an irreplaceable player for the Giants. But is that really true going forward? Or is there a price point at which extending Barkley would be more of a hindrance than a help to the team?
Tread on his tires
Much has been made of the regression in the running back market over the past number of years. Dalvin Cook, Austin Ekeler, and Barkley have all come up against that this offseason, not being able to even touch Christian McCaffrey’s top-of-the-market $16 million per year contract.
However, the reasoning for it is due to research over the past 20 years that indicates just how interchangeable running backs are. Not only that, but backs have an extremely short shelf life. They often enter the NFL at the peak of their powers and have a brief window of dominance before beginning to decline, sometimes precipitously.
The data increasingly shows that running backs decline when they enter a season with roughly 1,500 career touches. Barkley is heading into his fifth season in the league and has 1,201 career touches. With the 352 touches he compiled between the regular season and playoffs in 2022, Barkley will most likely hit that touch plateau with a healthy 2023 season.
If Barkley were to play on the one-year franchise tag, the Giants could then safely let him walk just as his likely shelf life begins to hit. Signing him to any sort of extension at all will likely force them to bear a large cap charge for a player who is no longer efficient.
2022 raw numbers
Barkley ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing yards in 2022 with 1,312. His 10 rushing touchdowns ranked eighth among running backs, and his 62 rushing first downs tied for sixth. He also had 32 rushes of 10 or more yards, the fifth-highest mark. He fumbled just once. However, his 4.4 yards per carry tied for 21st among backs.
2022 advanced numbers
Some of the more advanced running back statistics paint a different picture of Barkley’s season. Those metrics attempt to measure running back efficiency rather than merely their accumulated totals. These numbers tend to indicate how replaceable a running back is far more than their raw totals.
A recent article by Larry Holder of The Athletic looked at running back Expected Points Added (EPA) per rush, EPA per target, and combined EPA per rush-plus-target compared to their 2023 salary. Barkley is projected to be the third-highest-paid running back in the league with his $10.1 million franchise tag number.
However, Barkley’s EPA ranks do not come close to justifying that salary. He ranked 49th out of 64 running backs with -0.10 EPA per rush-plus-target, 37th with -0.06 EPA per rush, and 52nd with -0.24 EPA per target. Holder notes that despite the low ranking, Barkley’s -0.06 EPA per rush was actually the highest number of his career.
Football Outsiders contextualizes these numbers a bit. Their signature stat, DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), assesses a player’s value over the average when taking into account down, distance, and game context. It is primarily a measure of efficiency. Among 42 running backs with at least 100 rushing attempts, Barkley ranked 21st with a 0.2% DVOA. That speaks to an average player rather than a below-average one, but still not enough to justify committing significant cap dollars to him.
NFL Next Gen Stats’ Rush Yards Over Expected (RYOE) metric paints a similar picture. The purpose of RYOE is to differentiate between the yardage a running back was expected to pick up given his blocking and the leverage of the defense when he first received the ball compared to the yardage he actually gained. The Giants back ranked 16th in RYOE per rush with +0.396. While it’s an encouraging sign that the number is positive, signaling that he did add some surplus value over his blocking, it is hard to say that he is irreplaceable.
Some of Pro Football Focus’ numbers add further elements. Barkley ranked 27th among backs with just 2.78 yards after contact per attempt and 31st with a 37.1 elusiveness rating, indicating that he struggled to break tackles and make plays happen after contact. He ranked 19th with 0.89 yards per route run, indicating that he was about average in receiving efficiency. His 9.5% drop rate was the eighth-worst among backs.
Overall, these metrics portray Barkley’s 2022 season in a fairly damning light. At best, they seem to say that he was a league-average running back. At worst, he was one of the least efficient backs in the league.
The idea that Barkley is replaceable for the Giants carries little weight unless considering who his replacements will be. The options are rather thin, with Matt Breida, rookie fifth-round pick Eric Gray, special teamer Gary Brightwell, and 2022 practice squad back Jashaun Corbin as the only in-house candidates.
No, Barkley isn’t going anywhere in 2023. Notwithstanding his feeble attempt to gain leverage by stating that he would consider sitting out the season, both he and the Giants know that he would not make such a foolish career move. (Even Le’Veon Bell admitted that it was a mistake on his part.) This is more about 2024-25, which is presumably when the contract would still be in effect.
We know what Breida is at this point in his career — a backup running back. He is entering his age-28 season and averaged 4.1 yards per carry on 54 rushes in 2022. He’s certainly not a Barkley replacement. Nor is Brightwell, who has just 32 total carries in his two seasons with the team and is almost exclusively a special teams player. The chances that either player is on the 2024 roster are not that great; Breida will be a free agent, while Brightwell is fighting for his 2023 roster spot. Corbin is the other candidate fighting with Brightwell, and barring a breakout onto the scene, he won’t be the answer.
That leaves Gray, the Giants’ selection with the 172nd pick in 2023. He had just a 6.56 Relative Athletic Score, which ranked in the 34th percentile among all backs to ever participate at the NFL Combine. In particular, his 4.62 speed was unimpressive.
While Gray is clearly nowhere near the athlete Barkley is, there is one area in which he may be able to bring surplus value: yards after contact. Among 146 FBS backs with at least 100 carries in 2022, Gray ranked in the 69th percentile in yards after contact per attempt with 3.43 and in the 73rd percentile with a 96.2 elusiveness rating. Furthermore, Gray also ranked in the 73rd percentile with 1.03 yards per route run and had zero drops on 40 targets.
This is not to suggest that Gray can be a Barkley replacement. However, it speaks to the greater philosophy of how to handle the running back position in the NFL: if a team does not have a top talent on a rookie contract, the most efficient way to add value is via a divide-and-conquer approach.
The book Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions by Zack Moore details how the New England Patriots consistently built an effective running game by acquiring multiple backs with diverse skill sets, namely power, elusiveness, and receiving ability. The Giants can endeavor to do the same by drafting running backs in the mid-to-late rounds each year, focusing on complementary skills.
Considering that Barkley’s peripherals do not show a dominant back, the Giants should be able to replace his production with a cheap committee approach and a commitment to the position at the end of the draft and in the undrafted free agent pool.
Will they do it?
I believe that Schoen is aware of Barkley’s advanced metrics. The running back’s insinuation that the reports in the media about the Giants’ previous contract offers were inaccurate suggests that Schoen offered little guaranteed money.
Former NFL agent Joel Corry pointed out that the franchise tag would provide Barkley with $22 million guaranteed over the next two seasons, making that the starting point for any negotiation. However, that does not take into consideration that the Giants could simply let Barkley walk after one year on the tag, perhaps making the true threshold the $10.1 million tag number. If Schoen follows the 1,500-touch number cited above, he may well be ready to let Barkley go when the data indicates that his effectiveness will decline even further.
Whether Schoen will actually do it, or whether he will be able to do so, is a different story. Mara, the Giants owner, is very cognizant of his team’s tradition and may balk at the idea of letting one of its most popular players walk. He could potentially see it as disrespectful, as Barkley has stated, and intervene. Schoen could also take that into consideration of his own accord.
Ed Valentine has stated that he believes the Giants and Barkley will come to an agreement. The fact that they have resumed talks certainly makes it more likely. However, the advanced numbers certainly set up a caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) situation.
The Giants are shopping for Barkley. It’s their responsibility to ensure that they know what they’re getting.