Around the NFL: Week One Focus – Saquon Barkley – Part 1

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Taking a look at running back Saquon Barkley’s career with the New York Giants and how he compares to backs of the past and present.

One thing I spend a lot of my time doing is researching and learning more about NFL players and prospects through a number of different means. Watching film on college players, all 22 on NFL players, looking at PFF data, Football Outsiders information NFL’s Next Gen Stats, and Sharp’s Analytics are all a part of go-to websites I have bookmarked for weekly if not daily reference. The performance by the New York Giants, Saquon Barkley this week inspired me into action.

As part of a new series, what I’m going to be doing is taking a look at some takes that are prevalent in the mainstream media and have become narratives that are believed by a clear majority if not a consensus of NFL and/or college football fans, and trying to challenge readers to see things through a different perspective. This series will be about challenging the status quo of the mainstream media in the NFL and common prevailing thought on a vast variety of topics that will change week to week. Some will be more positive and upbeat about a player, coach, or front office being underappreciated, while others will be about those who I believe are over-hyped.

At the end of this article, you may still completely disagree, and that is perfectly fine! We all have our own preferred philosophies, systems, and beliefs when it comes to football based on our own personal experiences with the game, our own depth of knowledge about a team or player based on how often we watch them, and so on. My goal, however, is for those of you reading this to challenge yourselves to think outside of the box and hear a different point of view on players from around the league. While some of you may have preconceived notions based on where a player was drafted, or highlight reels, or what a guy looked like that one nationally televised game, it’s important to remember that those are small samples, and can lead to false beliefs. So, I am choosing to write this in hopes that some of you, if not all of you, will learn a thing or two on why those theories are wrong. With that said, we start off part one with one theory that has an indirect tie to the Detroit Lions, but not necessarily a direct one… Is New York Giants running back and former second overall pick Saquon Barkley the next Barry Sanders?

Examining Saquon Barkley’s career with the New York Giants

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First, let’s take a look at why Saquon Barkley is getting compared to someone as legendary as Barry Sanders in the first place. In a league where the running back position is, in general, being devalued as teams become more passing heavy and aggressive offensively, Barkley was unique. He was highly valued as a draft prospect and brought incredible athleticism and physical ability to the table at Penn State. He was an incredible freak at the Combine, and his workout videos he’s posted on social media showcase some of his ridiculous physical gifts.

Before I go any further, I think it’s important to say that Saquon  Barkley is indeed an elite athlete. However, not every athletic freak is good at football, and not every player who’s good at football is an athletic freak in the mold of Barkley. There are many traits that go into making a running back great, or for that matter good, besides athleticism. Mental processing and vision, ability to catch out of the backfield and pass protect, there are plenty, but I am going to mainly focus on results here and go into why, later. The important context going in is that Barkley was truly thought of coming out of Penn State as a generational, hall of fame caliber talent at running back largely because he was an athletic freak who makes a lot of highlight-reel plays and could turn the tide of a game in one play.

What has Barkley done since entering the NFL?

By now you can probably tell based on the introduction and second section where this is going. I don’t believe Saquon Barkley is a generational, hall of fame caliber running back he is made out to be. He is not in my current top five running backs in the league, and he is not even in my personal top ten at the time of writing this entering the 2020 regular season.

Why is that? We’ll start with the week one game on Monday Night Football where he and the New York Giants faced off against the Pittsburgh Steelers in New York. Saquon Barkley had 15 carries for 6 yards, with a long run of 7. Without that one seven-yard carry, he would have finished in the negatives in rushing yards.

Okay, so it’s week one. The New York Giants added some new offensive linemen this off-season, specifically, a rookie left tackle going against TJ Watt and a dominant Steelers defense. Maybe it’s a one-time thing and this was a fluke? Nope, not at all. Take the New York Jets game from last season’s interstate rivalry, where he rushed for 1 yard on 13 carries. Or the Dallas Cowboys game where he rushed for 28 yards on 14 carries. The Detroit Lions game 13 of his 64 yards came on 1/19 carries, which leaves 51 yards on 18 carries against the Detroit Lions defense good for a 2.83 per carry average. The Chicago Bears game he had 59 yards on 17 carries, which includes a 22-yard run, leaving the other 16 carries at 37 yards on 16 carries. Even the second Eagles game last season he had an incredible singular run of 68 yards, his longest of the season. The remainder of the game though, he put up 24 yards on 16 carries for a 1.5 yards per carry average.

Okay, so Saquon Barkley had a down year. He was dealing with an ankle sprain and may have been affected by the injury and never really came back at 100%. Also, teams like the Eagles and Bears both have strong defensive lines, and he was playing with a rookie quarterback the second half of the year allowing teams to key in on the run. Maybe last year isn’t the best sample and he was better his rookie year?

Well, he did have a higher volume of explosive runs, and he got them more consistently over the course of the season, so saying he was better is not technically incorrect. However, he still struggled with the same issues on occasion. 38 yards on 13 carries vs Washington, 43 yards on 14 carries with a long of 15 vs Atlanta, 48 yards on 15 carries with a long of 30 against the Panthers, 31 yards on 14 carries vs Tennessee with a long of 17, 43 yards on 21 carries vs Indianapolis, 28 yards on 11 carries vs Dallas with a 10 yard long, and 44 yards on 10 carries with a 28 yard run vs New Orleans. To get up to half the schedule and eight games, I’ll also throw San Francisco in there as well which he had 67 yards on 20 carries with an 18-yard run.

Over the course of those eight games, he totaled 342 total yards on 118 carries. At its base value, that’s 2.9 yards per carry. Now consider that his best runs those eight games combined for a total of 133 of the 342 yards. That’s roughly 39% of his yards, which gives us a remainder of 209 yards on 110 carries, or a yards per carry average of 1.9 yards per carry when you exclude his best runs. This is an incredibly frightening number, and watching tape it shows up very consistently to be a problem that costs his team key drives, which turns into games.

How do those numbers translate to analytics?

One thing that I heavily value in running backs myself is the ability to pick up first downs, extend drives, and keep the offense on schedule. I personally, am a believer in the mantra that the run sets up the pass, and that having a running back who can chew the clock and help your offense keep possession, keep the defense off the field, and have confidence that you will pick up positive yardage every play are critical components to my personal ideal rushing offense.

With those things in mind, one analytic I place a lot of emphasis on first is called success rate by Football Outsiders. For those who read my Detroit Lions running back preview on D’Andre Swift and Kerryon Johnson this season, I mentioned it briefly in there. To summarize, “a run counts as a success if it gains 40% of yards on first down, 60% of yards on second down, and 100% of yards on third down” however there are some minor changes for whether a team has a lead or deficit in the fourth quarter. Essentially, it’s job is to predict how often a team would convert a first down on every set of downs that a given running back carried the football. If a running back has three carries of four yards, that is a first down which keeps the offense on schedule and the ball in their hands, which is for example why 40% of yards are considered a success on first down.

So how does this apply to Saquon Barkley and why I am much lower on him than the vast majority of football fans? Well, Barkley has a very low success rate compared to the rest of the league. Last year, Barkley finished at 44% success rate, meaning less than 50% of the time did he keep the offense on schedule. This was 38th out of 45 qualified runners. The league average is typically around 50%, while some of the league’s best runners can hit 55% or higher. For comparison’s sake, Ezekiel Elliott who is often debated with Barkley for running back two in the NFL by fans, finished tied for fourth along with the Detroit Lions’ upcoming opponent Green Bay Packers runner Aaron Jones at 56%, over 10 points higher than Barkley. In his rookie season he finished 40th out of 47 with a 41% success rate. This time we’ll use Kerryon Johnson, who was also a rookie that season behind the Detroit Lions offensive line, who finished at 53% success rate, which tied for 9th in the NFL.

To go into a little bit more detail, the Lions’ offensive line that year finished 22nd in second level blocking, 27th in stuffed rate, 14th on power runs, and 23rd in pass protection (which may not seem entirely relevant, but speaks to balance and general line quality). Meanwhile, the Giants finished 25th in second level blocking, 24th in stuffed rate, 10th on power rushes and number one in the NFL in pass protection with the best pass blocking line in football.

This is also backed up by watching tape as well. While I was preparing for the Detroit Lions vs New York Giants game last season, the Lions’ third and final win last year, I watched plenty of Saquon tape from both his rookie and sophomore seasons, as well as watching him plenty while he was at Penn State both as a Big Ten fan and for scouting purposes, so I’m quite familiar with watching his actual film, too.

Tomorrow I will continue by looking at the effect Saquon Barkley has on the New York Giants offense, and what it not just to the team, but in his comparison to Barry Sanders.

Thanks for reading! Hopefully you learned a thing or two along the way. Don’t forget to follow @C_Robbins_ on Twitter, and leave me your thoughts on the Detroit Lions Subreddit! Check out some of Chris’s other articles for the Detroit Lions Podcast here.

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