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Stay or go? Saquon Barkley’s pending free agency hangs over Giants’ offseason

How should the Giants approach negotiations with the star running back?

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Saquon Barkley says New York is “home” and a “special place” to him. After six years as the face of the New York Giants’ franchise, will Barkley be leaving that home this offseason to find a new NFL employer?

It is perhaps the biggest question of the offseason, having a massive impact on what the 2024 roster might look and how the offense will be structured.

Barkley is in the midst of a second straight offseason filled with uncertainty. Last year, Barkley and the Giants negotiated to the 11th (12th?) hour before reportedly falling just a couple of million dollars short of agreeing on a multi-year deal. That forced Barkley to do something he didn’t want to do, play out the 2023 season on an amended franchise tag.

Barkley and the Giants find themselves right back where they were a year ago. GM Joe Schoen has said he will not negotiate with Barkley’s new representation, Ed Berry of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) until the NFL Combine later this month.

When those negotiations do take place, will the outcome be any different this time around? Will Barkley and the Giants be able to find a multi-year deal? Barkley has said he wants something that is “fair.” He has not, though, indicated what “fair” is. If they can’t find common ground, would the Giants use the franchise tag again, this time at a cap hit of $12.1 million? Would they tag him and trade him? Would they let Barkley see what kind of offers he can find on the open market in March, then see if they are willing to make a competitive offer?

When I spoke to Barkley on Thursday, he spoke of New York and “home” and a “special place.” After six years with the Giants, though, he seemed resigned to the possibility his time in that special place he has often said he would like to stay in for his entire career might be over.

He seemed to be thinking of the Giants in the past tense when he said “I’m really happy and fortunate that I was able to get drafted to such a special place. Hopefully in those six years I was able to make an impact on somebody.”

Should Barkley be a Giant in 2024?

Reasons to keep Barkley

He is still their best skill position player.

As long as he has been a Giant, Barkley has always been the player opposing defenses feared and built game plans around. He has had four seasons of 1,200 or more yards from scrimmage and three 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

When healthy, Barkley plays an extraordinary number of snaps in an age of running back by committee. In the five seasons in which he has played at least 13 games, he has averaged 292.8 touches per season. Twice in his career he has had 352 touches in a season.

Barkley isn’t Superman anymore. Injuries and the inevitable pounding of 1,489 NFL touches have taken a toll. In his 2018 rookie season, he broke a tackle every 8.7 rushing attempts. In 2023, he broke a tackle every 20.6 attempts.

He is, though, still a terrific player. His pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry average in 2023 was less about him than about the inadequate blocking in front of him. Having Barkley to hand the ball to or toss it to as a receiver would be comforting for Daniel Jones as he comes back from injury, or for a rookie quarterback trying to find his way in the NFL.

Bottom line is that Barkley, who turned 27 on Friday, still has juice and what he does on the field will be difficult to replace.

There is also the locker room factor, and that might be bigger than the on-field production.

Players know players. They know what Barkley is. They know what he means to them, both on the field as a player and in the locker room as a leader. We saw Kayvon Thibodeaux say recently that he thought Barkley should have gotten paid before Jones. There is no big controversy in the Giants’ locker room regarding that, but you can be sure that Thibodeaux isn’t the only player who thinks Barkley should have gotten paid already. Players not only know players, they want other players to get PAID.

Losing Barkley, especially if the Giants low-ball him and don’t make a realistic offer, risks alienating the locker room and costing GM Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll player support.

Reasons to let him go

Cost. Injury history. Team-building philosophy.

As I said above, Barkley is not Superman anymore. He is a high-mileage 27-year-old running back with a history of leg injuries. He remains a tremendously valuable asset, but from a cold, unemotional business perspective Barkley is a depreciating one.

Emotionally, it is easy to think of ‘face of the franchise’ Barkley, look at his on-field production and think ‘how can the Giants let that go?’

Schoen’s job is to be unemotional. His job is to properly and, yes, coldly, assess the roster he has, the type of team he and head coach Brian Daboll want, and to figure out the best way to spend the limited resources at his disposal in a league with a hard salary cap.

History tells us running backs have a short shelf life. They don’t get better as they age and the mileage piles up. They play their best football early in their careers, on their first contracts. Barkley still has game. He can still make big plays. He still has productive seasons to come. Truthfully, though, we have probably already seen his best.

The Giants, if they want to keep Barkley, have to project what he can give them going forward, how long they believe he can play at a high level and make him an offer based on that.

It’s like a car. You may love your car. It may have been great for you. It might be the best care you have ever owned. It began to depreciate the second you drove it off the dealership lot, though.

At some point, you have to assess how much you are putting into the car to maintain it and whether or not the value you are getting out of it is worth the cost. Emotionally attached or not, at some point you have to move on.

The Giants need to decide whether they are at that point with Barkley.

The verdict

I keep saying this. The Giants are a 6-11 team with an incomplete roster. If they can help it, they shouldn’t be intentionally hemorrhaging talent.

I would like to see the Giants offer Barkley a two-year deal somewhere in the $22-25 million range, with most of that guaranteed. Maybe you add a void year and split the guaranteed money into a signing bonus that runs over three seasons, lessening the cap hit.

If Barkley balks at that, and he might, let him test the free agent waters — with the understanding that you want to to stay engaged in talks. Let the market set his value. If he can find an offer that is well above what the Giants are comfortable with, so be it. If the market for him is in the ballpark of what the Giants want to pay him then you compete. Maybe his love for New York and his long-stated desire to be a Giant for life will help you keep him.

I would try not to use the franchise tag, which would cost $12.1 million. Barkley played nice a year ago and signed the tag. This time, I doubt that he would be as accommodating. The only way I would use the tag is if there was a trade already in place that Barkley agreed to, and the signed tag was needed to complete the tag-and-trade.

I would like to see Barkley remain with the Giants for a couple more seasons. The things he can do, and the leadership he can provide, are important. The price, though, has to be right.