The general sense in NFL draft circles as we close in on Thursday's first round is that Penn State running back Saquon Barkley won't make it past the New York Giants, who have the second overall pick. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has even gone so far as to say that Barkley-to-New York “feels inevitable.” Barkley is a freakish athlete who made a ton of jaw-dropping plays during his collegiate career, and considering how well running backs drafted in the top five—Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette—have done the past couple of years, it doesn't seem like much of a reach to snag an elite prospect at the position at No. 2.
But when taking a closer look at both Barkley and the New York roster, jumping on the draft's top running back might not be the best idea for the Giants.
When people talk about Barkley, they rave about his gaudy collegiate production, jaw-dropping combine numbers, and mesmerizing highlight reels. But don't let those aspects force you to lose sight of potential flaws in Barkley's game. Plenty of college players have been productive, freakish, and mesmerizing, only to flop in the NFL, and Barkley is not above at least some slight bust potential.
In the open field, Barkley's unparalleled athletic gifts are on full display. He can stop and start like the Road Runner, he makes explosive cuts, he drags defenders with his stout 6-foot, 233-pound frame, and he can outrun just about anyone on the field. But it's not all that easy to get in open space at the next level. When NFL coaching staffs have to design plays specifically to get players the ball in space, they can fall into a dangerous realm of inefficient play-calling. Players like Trent Richardson, Reggie Bush, Tavon Austin, and Percy Harvin—despite being electrifying in open space—sometimes hurt their teams due to their inability to make plays organically within the offense.
Barkley should have no trouble fitting seamlessly into the passing game of whatever team drafts him, but if he wants to live up to the hype, he is going to need to improve his running, particularly between the tackles. This would allow the coaching staff to force feed Barkley touches without having to get cute with the playbook.
NFL Films' Greg Cosell, who lives and breathes game tape, has expressed some concerns with Barkley's running ability. Cosell was quick to point out one of the most obvious flaws in Barkley's running style: As a home-run hitter, Barkley often takes losses attempting to generate a big play rather than just taking the easy yards. It's fine for an ultra-talented player to do that from time to time, but Barkley could do a better job of knowing when a big play just isn't there. Cosell also mentioned that Barkley “doesn't get the hard yards,” questioned his vision, and pointed out that Barkley tries to slip past defenders rather than attacking them a la Elliott and Fournette. Defenders won't be as easy to elude in the NFL, so Barkley will need to learn to embrace contact to tack on extra yards at the end of his runs.
It seems that the consensus is that Barkley is a better prospect than Elliott was and that he's above the likes of former draft busts, but that is not necessarily the case. Though Barkley's passing-game ability is superior to that of Elliott, the latter was the better inside runner in college. In his final collegiate season, Elliott topped a hundred yards rushing in 12 of 13 games and was held under three yards per carry just once. Barkley, on the other hand, topped a hundred yards rushing in just five of 13 games and was held under three yards per carry three times. Even if you include Barkley's receiving yards, he still topped a hundred yards in just eight of 13 games.
It also seems to be a myth that Barkley is a significantly better prospect than former draft busts. Take Reggie Bush and Trent Richardson for example (Bush did salvage a solid NFL career, but if the Giants take Barkley at No. 2, they'll be hoping for more). Both players, like Barkley, were exceptional in open space. Each player also finished his final collegiate season with more yards from scrimmage than Barkley. Now, of course, there were concerns over Bush's size and physicality when he entered the draft, and Richardson, after running behind a dominant line at Alabama, couldn't get skinny through NFL holes, but as mentioned, Barkley has his flaws too.
The point is that Barkley is not perfect, and players who were just as prolific as Barkley in college have struggled to find success in the NFL.
None of this is to say that Barkley won't be a great NFL running back. In fact, he'll probably be exceptional. But unless a running back prospect is truly perfect—which we've established Barkley is not—then a team probably shouldn't take him over other more pressing needs.
The Giants are not in the position that the Dallas Cowboys were in when they drafted Elliott fourth overall. The Cowboys had a franchise quarterback (well, they thought so at the time—Tony Romo's career unraveled shortly afterward), a dominant offensive line, and a passable defense. The Giants have a 37-year-old Eli Manning who appears to be on the decline, a ton of questions on the offensive line, no linebackers to speak of, and holes in the secondary. Yes, the Giants badly need a running back as well, but there should be plenty of running back talent on the board on Day 2.
The best option for the Giants would be to trade down. They could stockpile some extra picks and still add a top offensive lineman, linebacker, or defensive back. With all but one of the top passers on the board, the Giants would likely get a great haul for the No. 2 pick by giving another team the opportunity to draft its quarterback of the future.
But what the Giants should probably do is just draft a quarterback themselves. It's been established what wins in the NFL—quarterbacks. You can ride an elite defense and running game into the playoffs, but if you have a Blake Bortles type behind center, a Tom Brady type will crush your Super Bowl aspirations.
The Giants will be hoping that they won't find themselves in a high draft slot again any time soon, so they should take their shot while they have the chance. Maybe there's not an Andrew Luck-caliber quarterback prospect in this class, but the top few prospects at the position each offer some exciting potential in a different way. It would be hard to believe that the front office wouldn't be able to sell itself on any quarterback on the board at No. 2.
But if the Giants truly don't like any of the quarterback prospects, and they can't find a trade partner willing to give them a couple of good picks, then Barkley would make a solid selection. He'll probably be a great player and post huge numbers in the NFL for a long time. But it's hard to believe that the Giants wouldn't be able to manage something better with their prime real estate—either a player at the game's most important position, or several players to round out a roster with a number of holes. As a result, Barkley—despite his immense talent—is a bit of a tough sell at No. 2 overall.