A sea change could be about to come to the New York Giants at running back, depending on what happens this offseason with superstar back Saquon Barkley. Let’s review the position and look ahead to 2024.
2023 in review
Saquon Barkley, Matt Breida, Eric Gray, Gary Brightwell (IR), Jashaun Corbin, Deon Jackson
Barkley was a committee of one for the Giants at running back. Despite missing three games with yet another high ankle sprain, he played 64.95% of the team’s offensive snaps. Only Ben Bredeson, Darius Slayton, Justin Pugh and John Michael Schmitz played more.
In the 14 games Barkley played in, he was on the field for more than 90% of the snaps twice and more than 80% six other times.
Barkley’s production was good, but perhaps not great. And, yes, some of that likely had to do with poor offensive line play.
Barkley gained 962 yards rushing, falling 38 yards short of his fourth 1,000-yard rushing season. Of his 247 rushing attempts, he was tackled for a loss a league-worst 38 times for -80 yards. Only Jerome Ford of the Cleveland Browns (34 tackles for loss for -91 yards) lost more yardage on negative plays.
Barkley averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and his longest run of 36 yards marks the first time in his career (aside from 2020, when he played only two games) in which he has not had a run of 40 or more yards. He did tie Breece Hall of the New York Jets for a league-high five runs of at least 30 yards.
One more advanced number: Barkley averaged 1.8 yards after contact per rushing attempt. That’s the second-worst of his career, behind only a 1.7 yards after contact per attempt average in 2021, when he also dealt with a high ankle sprain.
Barkley also had 41 receptions for 280 yards and four touchdowns.
Of course, the bigger story with Barkley in 2023 was that he ended up forced to play the season on an amended franchise tag after failing to reach a long-term contract agreement.
There is really little to say about the rest of the backfield.
Matt Breida is headed to free agency after gaining 151 yards on 55 carries (2.7 yards per attempt). Rookie fifth-round pick Eric Gray failed as a return man, and saw only 17 carries for 48 yards (2.8 yards per attempt) to go with six catches for 22 yards. Gary Brightwell played in only seven games with nine carries for 19 yards (2.1 yards per attempt).
Jashaun Corbin and Deon Jackson were each on the roster briefly, but neither made an impact.
This is, of course, all about THE BARKLEY QUESTION.
The Giants are right back with Barkley where they were a year ago. Trying to decide if they want to go forward with Barkley long term, and if they do then needing to come to an agreement with Barkley and his representatives on the length value of a multi-year deal.
The Giants and Barkley could not get that done last year, despite negotiating right up to the franchise tag deadline of July 17 and reportedly getting exceptionally close to a deal. Still, the Giants weren’t willing to budge off what they believed the running back’s value to be.
There appears to be significant doubt that the Giants will be any more generous with Barkley this time around, or that they will be willing to make any type of significant commitment to the 2018 No. 2 overall pick.
At his season-ending press conference, GM Joe Schoen did not appear to be sweating the situation. He reminded that a second franchise tag is “a tool we have at our disposal” and said conversations about how to proceed with Barkley would take place “over the next month or so.”
Barkley has often said he would like to spend his entire career with the Giants, but has increasingly seemed resigned to the possibility that may not happen.
“I’ve mentioned before that I wanted to be a Giant for life,” Barkley said before the season finale. “That was a goal of mine when I got drafted. I wanted to leave a legacy here. But it’s out of my control. I truly have no say. It’s really up to those guys upstairs, to Joe and all those guys. They’ve got to do what’s best for the team and whatever they feel like is best for us, for the team, then they’re going to make the decision. But me sitting here saying ‘I want to be a Giant for life’ like I did last year, it doesn’t help, it doesn’t hurt. So, I’ll just leave that up to those guys.”
Even if the Giants go forward with Barkley, they are likely to have to add running back depth in free agency or the draft. It was clear in 2023 that they don’t have enough.
Without Barkley? The approach would likely be running back by committee. Question is, who would be on that committee? Gray is the only back on the roster who looks like he might have a chance to be a productive part of a committee, and that is hardly a certainty. So, if the Giants move on without Barkley there will be a lot of work to do to construct an effective committee to replace him.