In a draft expected to feature quarterbacks early and often at the top of the first round, one player has the talent and reputation to challenge for the first overall pick despite his position: Saquon Barkley. The running back from Penn State advanced from a strong career as his team’s go-to offensive weapon to an outstanding Combine performance that backed up his reputation as a freak athlete. He has the agility of a kick returner in the body of a fullback. Is he the leader of the next generation of running backs? Let’s examine his profile.
Career: 671 carries, 3,843 yards (5.7 YPC), 43 TDs; 102 receptions, 1195 yards, (11.7 YPC), 8 TDs; 18 kick returns, 500 yards (27.8 YPR), 2 TDs
2017: 217 carries, 1,271 yards (5.9 YPC), 18 TDs; 54 receptions, 632 yards (11.7 YPC), 3 TDs; 15 kick returns, 426 yards (28.4 YPR), 2 TDs
Missed two games with a minor ankle injury in 2015 as a freshman
Left game early with minor ankle injury against Maryland in 2017, returned to start in the next game (Fiesta Bowl)
Accolades and off-field notes
2016 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year
2017 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year
2017 Consensus All-American
Six feet, 233 pounds, 9.5 inch hands, 31.375 inch arms
4.40 forty yard dash (95th percentile for running backs)
41″ vertical leap (97th percentile)
4.24 short shuttle (66th percentile)
29 bench press reps (89th percentile)
A Bronx native, Barkley was a multi-sport athlete and a four star recruit out of high school. He immediately established himself as the primary running threat for the Nittany Lions as a true freshman, rushing for 1,076 yards and seven touchdowns. He only got better as his college career continued, culminating in a Heisman bid as a junior that saw him finish fourth in voting.
The first thing that stands out with Barkley is his ridiculous speed and acceleration. He hits his top gear extremely quickly, and in the open field it’s rare to see someone who can catch him.
Because of Barkley’s well-built body, defenders may feel that he presents himself more slowly than he does – they take pursuit angles and drop to depths that seem like a good idea, until Barkley is flying past them on his way to a huge gain.
Between his exceptional acceleration and the tremendous force generated from the legs supporting his 233 pound body, Barkley isn’t easy to tackle, even if you can make contact with him. He’ll spin or bounce off of hits, trying to find a new lane for additional yardage.
If there’s one criticism I have of Barkley, it’s that his vision and decision-making seem underdeveloped. He’ll start to run through a gap, notice a defender winning or losing a particular one-on-one matchup, and change direction in the hope of exploiting a better opening. With his wide field of view, it unlocks some deep paths for major gains, but other times he just looks like he forgot where he was going on a play.
When Barkley doesn’t see an easy answer in front of him, he tends to wilt rather than dive ahead like a bull. He’ll double back or spin around, or even pause and eye the defense, trying to process a better opening when the best answer might have been to continue forward and initiate contact with the players in front of him. This boom-or-bust style will work for him as long as he is the most athletic player on the field, but he needs to develop his maturity as a runner to make good on the special projections people are placing on him.
As a receiver out of the backfield, Barkley is tremendous. He has excellent hand-eye coordination and can catch passes one-handed or through traffic on a slip screen. Penn State often used him on quick routes as well as from the slot, and he shines because his acceleration makes him a matchup nightmare against most linebackers. Crossing the middle of the field or heading to the flats, Barkley has the speed to easily turn the corner and earn a first down and then some.
Barkley is further along than most college running backs when it comes to pass protection. He has the footwork and agility to pick up blitzers inside-out, and when he makes contact, he uses his legs as a strong anchor to deliver force to the opponent. Barkley rarely whiffs one-on-one with a defender in front of him.
There are a few places where Barkley could continue developing to become a more reliable protector, though. First, he needs to improve the timing and hand placement on his punches, directing them inside his opponent’s chest and with full extension of his arms. He also needs to hold his head up when he initiates contact. When he drops his head, Barkley loses sight of the defender’s plan of attack, and he loses balance and the ability to generate a significant anchor.
When I evaluate Barkley’s style, there’s one comparison that I keep coming back to: former Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown. Also a two-time All-Conference running back, Brown was a six foot, 233 pound runner who ran a 4.43 forty yard dash and a 4.08 short shuttle at the Combine, and ended up picked second overall. On the field, Brown had speed to burn and could sink his hips to cut past defenders, but he went down on first contact more frequently than a player weighing 233 pounds should. Brown spent most of his career in a timeshare with Ricky Williams, and had his most successful season when the Dolphins put him under center in the Wildcat formation, giving him clearer lanes to run through. Also a useful receiver, Brown averaged 30 catches per season with the Dolphins.
Barkley is a more athletic player than Brown, and he does a better job of lowering his pads in anticipation of contact, whereas Brown ran with a more upright style. I think Barkley’s elite traits will protect him early on, as he refines his decision-making. In the right fit, Barkley could make the Pro Bowl as a rookie, though I wouldn’t be shocked if defenders swarm to stop him and limit his day one impact, especially if he lands on a team with few weapons like Indianapolis. In our grading system, I have him rated as a 6.00, a future perennial All-Pro who deserves to be drafted in the top ten. As a prospect, Barkley doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of elite runners before him like Adrian Peterson or LaDainian Tomlinson. Yet. But he holds that potential.