Taking a look at Saquon Barkley’s career and how he compares to running backs of the past and current.
Yesterday I began a series 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. I will continue this series weekly, taking a look at a new player each week trying to provide a different perspective on players we think we know. This is part two of this week’s series on Saquon Barkley.
Saquon Barkley’s average runs hurt the Giants offense
While it’s clear that Barkley’s offensive lines don’t provide him much help, it’s more so the extremity of the situation that he’s produced. When he doesn’t have a big run, it is typically a play that more often than not hurts the offense, and would be better served as a passing play. Passing plays in general add much more value to an offense, which is why teams around the league are starting to favor the pass over the run, even if the run has its situational importance.
If your team is running the ball more than passing, typically one of three things are true; you have a lead you are trying to protect, you have zero confidence in your quarterback, or you have a mobile quarterback who is creating with his legs through the use of options, scrambles or designed quarterback runs. There are some exceptions of course, for example setting up a play-action pass, tiring out a defense late in a game, exploiting an opposing team’s biggest weakness after an in-game injury, etc. are all possibilities for running the ball more than passing on a situational basis. However, in a neutral situation in which the score is within 10 points for either team, it is not a four-minute offense, and it is not a broken-down pass play that turns into a quarterback scrambling to salvage some yards on an originally called passing play, a team should more likely than not pass the ball at the very least more than 50% of the time barring disastrous quarterback play, an injury of some kind, or other dramatic exception.
Only four teams diverged from that theory in week one this season heading into Monday Night Football. The Baltimore Ravens (who have Lamar Jackson as a rushing threat), the New England Patriots (who have Cam Newton coming off shoulder surgery and is a rushing threat), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who had a mightily struggling Tom Brady in his first game outside of New England vs a Saints defense that is weaker against the run than the pass) and the Minnesota Vikings, who seem to be the exception to almost every single offensive principle that is commonly practiced in today’s NFL.
Even in cases when Saquon Barkley gets a four-yard run, those types of plays typically add negligible value to an offense in terms of estimated points added, which is why raw first down numbers are another tool I look at as well. While a four-yard carry on first down doesn’t hold too much analytical value, a first down is always valuable to bring a fresh set of downs to an offense at its base. It accounts just the same for picking up one yard on a third and one, or 20 yards on a first and 10, which helps in a way neutralize the impact of one-off run plays over the course of a game.
Saquon Barkley totaled 45 first downs on the ground last season, which put him 20th in the league despite injury, and 50 first downs when healthy as a rookie in 2018, which put him 14th. While there are some issues with using raw first down numbers (for example it doesn’t account for passing first downs from quarterbacks) it’s still a comparison tool on a more basic level that can be utilized.
So we move on to NFL’s Next Gen Stats for even more info. One thing I look for here is whether or not a running back is able to force a stacked box to draw defenders close to the line of scrimmage. This opens things up for passes down the field and shows that teams are game planning to stop the run and respect their opponent’s ability to establish the run consistently. Saquon Barkley last year drew a stacked box on only 11.52% of his snaps, which was 8th fewest in the NFL last year, a crazy low number. For example, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones, also drafted in the same class as Saquon Barkley was, drew a stacked box on 26.16% of his carries, more than twice as much as Barkley did. Barkley also spent 2.89 seconds running behind the line of scrimmage per carry average last season, which was 15th longest. Most of the players ahead of him had the benefit of good lines that provided them with reason to stay behind the line and wait for holes to open. Saquon Barkley just does not explode downhill and get into space quickly enough to be able to put himself in a position where he can utilize his athleticism in the open field on a regular basis. It was even worse his rookie season, where he spent 2.94 seconds behind the line of scrimmage, which was just outside the top five longest in the league. His mental processing and field vision was slow early in his career, and he is far too patient waiting for holes to open up. Asking the New York Giants offensive line to block for 2.9 seconds on a run play is not exactly a great way to pick up consistent yards, especially in obvious situations, and is why teams feel no need to stack the box against Barkley.
So moving on to playerprofiler, they have another more neutral metric that can be used to compare Saquon Barkley’s performance discounting explosive runs called true yards per carry. This metric takes all of the players runs of more than 10 yards out of the total, and finds the average yards per carry on all remaining runs for all running backs. Last season, Saquon Barkley finished at 4.2, which put him 28th in the league, and he also finished at 4.2 in 2018 as a rookie, however that year he was only good for 34th.
Barkley relies on explosive runs; but do they happen often?
Fortunately, there is a metric already calculated for us for this question as well. Playerprofiler put together a metric called breakaway run rate, which calculates a percentage of a player’s rushes that are 15 yards or greater. While Saquon Barkley is known for his explosive run plays, what we find is relatively unfortunate for Barkley. His 4.1% breakaway run rate last year was 25th in the league. When considering he was also bottom 10 in success rate, it’s abundantly clear to me Saquon Barkley was not a top ten runner in 2019.
The good news, however, is that when healthy as a rookie his numbers do look quite a bit better. He had the third most breakaway runs at 18, an average of just over one per game, was top in the league in yards created after what was blocked in the open field, and that is almost certainly a direct result of him being number one in the league in evaded tackles. Once Barkley gets going and into open space, he is very difficult to stop. The issue is that this only happens an average of once per game, even for those who are elite creators like Saquon Barkley, and can evade tackles and extend plays beyond even an average NFL running back’s expectations. It’s reasons like this why Barkley is so overhyped and compared to Barry Sanders.
Did Barry Sanders have the same issues as Barkley?
Unfortunately, a lot of the metrics and analytics we have today going back to 2018 did not exist when Barry Sanders was at the height of his prime. So, we’ll just revert back to the longest run proposal I brought up at the very beginning of this article. How many of Barry Sanders’ yards were a direct result of one single run, and did he find success on other carries over the course of the entire game?
So, I decided to take a look at Barry Sanders’ 1997 game log, arguably his best season, at least on paper, where he ran for 2,053 yards. Also, I decided to take out the week one game which was an extreme outlier in comparison to the rest of the season’s data as well.
It’s clear that Barry Sanders’ explosive runs absolutely played a factor in him being so incredibly productive, but what we don’t see, like with Saquon Barkley, is a pure reliance on it and inability to generate consistent yards on non-explosive plays. 607 of his 2,053 yards came on his longest runs, including a pair of 80-plus yard runs vs the Colts and Buccaneers. This takes us to a total of 1446 yards created on plays that were not the longest run of the day, which just for reference is 139 more than Barkley’s season total rushing yards over the course of his entire sixteen-game complete and healthy rookie year – including every single one of his 18 explosive run plays.
When you account for the yards per carry average over his 319 carries after taking out the 16 longest runs, that works out to an average of 4.54 yards per carry. Even after taking out all of Barry Sanders’ longest runs over the course of every game in an entire season, Barry Sanders still averaged over 4.5 yards per carry. That is absolutely incredible, and comparing someone who’s average including his explosive run plays last season was 4.6 to that kind of legendary status to me is quite disappointing.
Saquon Barkley is not Barry Sanders, or even close… Yet.
Admittedly, Saquon Barkley is entering only his third season in the NFL and clearly has yet to reach his ceiling and potential just yet. He’s very young, and likely due to his skillset has a long career ahead of him barring injury.
Is it possible he grows and develops some of the needed traits over time to get to that level of runner that people say he is? Absolutely. If anything, Barkley has proven above all else he has a fantastic work ethic, is a great person, character, and leader, and has shown going back to Penn State the desire to consistently maintain his body, stay in prime football shape and be able to be a lead back for years to come. He has elite athleticism, and other elite traits he’s showcased include – but are not limited to – his balance, receiving upside out of the backfield, and his ability to break and evade tackles.
However, if he wants to help the New York Giants win games, he absolutely must become more consistent and reliable over the duration of a game. While one great carry a game is nice and can lead a team to seven points, I personally believe that the best running backs are the ones who do the simple things. Pick up first downs, keep the offense on schedule, keep the defense on the field and give your quarterback a chance. Expecting Saquon Barkley to turn into Aaron Jones is a bit unrealistic of course, but what happened vs the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football to open the season cannot continue to happen and has been an issue for him going back to his days at Penn State. When he doesn’t get that one big long rush, his ability to help add value and bring his team closer to wins goes out the window.
So yes, it’s fun watching Saquon Barkley’s highlights and hyping him up as the next Barry Sanders. At the height of his career with perfect blocking and perfect quarterback play with great scheming, I have no doubts he could certainly be better than he has been to date, to say the least. This is not a Saquon Barkley is a bust piece or a Saquon Barkley sucks piece. This is a Saquon Barkley critique of things that must get better for him to reach his true potential and unlock the force he can truly become. Is his ultimate ceiling maybe Barry Sanders? It just may be with his athleticism in open space and his ability to break tackles and extend plays after contact combined with that. However, based on where he is at today, right now after week one of the 2020 NFL Football Season, and based on what he has done to this point at Penn State and his first two seasons with the New York Giants, Saquon Barkley does not belong in the same conversation of greatness as 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.