Entering the 2017 season there won’t be many debates hotter than PSU RB Saquon Barkley vs. LSU RB Derrius Guice and their battle to be the first RB selected in April next year. This article is about Barkley and I’m going to try and avoid making 1-for-1 comparisons, as tempting as it may be, because they are different backs with different run styles and every snowflake is unique and beautiful in its own way.
Barkley saw increased usage in 2016, toting the rock 272 times for 1,496 yards (5.5avg), and 18 touchdowns and has had some eye-popping workout numbers in the offseason, breaking Anthony Zettel’s school record by power cleaning 405 pounds. Combine this with impeccable football character, a fascinating back story, his RB coach calling him “college football’s Floyd Mayweather”, and you have the makings of an unstoppable hype train.
RELATED: Saquon Barkley vs. Derrius Guice
Saquon Barkley's dad was a semi-pro boxer & a drug addict. Barkley's mom moved them out their drug-infested neighborhood. Dad got clean.
— Jesse Fritsch (@CalhounLambeau) July 23, 2017
When evaluating running backs, there are three main factors that are necessary to their success at the next level:
- Vision to see it.
- Burst to run through it.
- Ability to finish.
Of course, there is more that goes into these players’ skillsets that can make them successful in their transition to the NFL, but if you are lacking in any of those 3 traits, there are going to be some question marks. Barkley can excel in all three factors, but his tape still provides some headscratchers that can’t be ignored. Before we get to the questions, let’s dig into what we know Barkley does well.
There isn’t much that needs to be explained for Barkley in this area because his athletic ability smacks you in the face. This summer Barkley reportedly ran a 4.33 40-yard dash and that matches what you see on tape. His burst is next level bonkers and at top speed you will not see Barkley tracked down. He has a rare ability to instantly change direction and chain hard angle cuts together. This is his trump card and I could gush for days about his quicks and elusiveness, and likely will over the course of the year. I’ll close this section by saying his athletic ability is elite and you won’t see much argument over this fact.
PSU RB Saquon Barkley has sublime burst, splits the safeties with barely a hand laid on him. pic.twitter.com/gKUevPzpiJ
— Michael Kist (@MichaelJKist) July 30, 2017
The modern NFL RB, if he wants to play all three downs and maximize his snaps, has to contribute in the passing game. I’m not talking about dump offs at the line of scrimmage, I’m talking about wheel routes, angle routes, loops and lining up as a WR for a variety of routes. In this respect, Barkley has a fat checkmark. Barkley can create separation with all the routes mentioned and then some. Barkley caught 28 passes for 404 yards in 2016 and if PSU plays their cards right, he will be utilized even more frequently in this area to get him to space.
The modern NFL RB also needs to be able to pass block, an area I believe Barkley improved in throughout the season. He shows good depth and angles with his pick-ups, engages with his hands, and anchors well. There were times earlier in the season where he was late to diagnose and ended up with poor positioning, but overall he has shown enough development to be trustworthy when left in to protect his QB.
This area is trickier for Barkley, because for the most part he does a solid job in diagnosing blocks. This is also tricky due to PSU’s poor offensive line play. Barkley was frequently met with immediate penetration or no crease to work with and saved many plays with his ability to create. He also does well to press the line of scrimmage, peek inside, and bounce outside just as the linebackers began to suck inside. The concern is that he relies on bouncing or reversing field too much and it leads to some interesting results.
NFL teams ran 2% more than they passed on 1st down in 2016, and with good cause. Throw an incompletion on first down and you’re staring at a 18.6% conversion rate on second down. Run on first down for 1-3 yards and that jumps to 29.7%. It hikes to 40.9% if you gain 4-6 yards. Gaining yards on early downs is referred to as “staying on schedule”, and this is where Barkley’s ability to create becomes a concern.
Credit: Krossover (@krossovr)
In 2016, Barkley had 59 rushes for 0 yards or less, for a 21.6% share of his total carries. If that looks high, it’s because it is, and it’s 35 more rushes more for no gain than LSU RB Derrius Guice. I won’t get into comparing the two lead backs in this draft class, but there is a clear difference in how they approach the line.
Barkley had 21.6% of his runs go for zero yards or less, this isnt one of those runs, but there were more yards to be had on 1st & Goal. pic.twitter.com/JXYCHAVjy9
— Michael Kist (@MichaelJKist) July 30, 2017
In the clip above, it’s 1st & Goal, and as opposed to keeping his team on schedule with plus yards, Barkley decides to reverse field. This play can be deceiving as he shows off his patented jump cuts in the middle of running from sideline-to-sideline, and it’s not exactly blocked up perfectly, but there are yards on the table and Barkley too often treats each play as a buffet.
In the clip above, Barkley fails to set up his block and get the necessary yardage on first down, a tendency that showed up a few times while I watched him. Overall, he is consistently reluctant to fall forward and take what is given due to his belief that his elite athletic ability will win the day.
The problem with evaluating Barkley’s vision, in addition to the poor line play he’s been saddled with, is PSU’s offensive scheme. The Nittany Lions spread it out, frequently providing Barkley with advantageous 6-man boxes. They also make things easier for Barkley by running read options with QB Trace McSorely, who is enough of a threat to hold defensive ends and give Barkley a defined runway.
This is all to say that I don’t believe there is a significant issue with Barkley’s vision, as he is often savvy profitable in setting up his bounces, but there is reason to keep an eye on the volume of negative plays as the season unfolds.
NFL Draft Scout has Barkley listed at 5’10” 223 and he weighed in at 228 pounds this summer. He certainly has the body type with tree trunks for legs to absorb and drive through contact. Arm tackles are ineffective when he has the burners on and his low center of gravity allows him to maintain balance through contact consistently. He looks his strongest when unleashing a stiff arm to a defender with an angle on him, showing the ability to push down defenders of all sizes and maintain speed.
With that in mind, he doesn’t always live up to the promise that his frame would suggest. It’s my belief that this has more to do with his desire to create, as there are times where he can lean forward for extra yards, but is spun to the ground as he attempts to escape. The question I have here is whether he can be a reliable goal line back when the boxes are loaded and he has to keep his legs churning through a pile. His lower body strength would suggest this shouldn’t be an issue, but it remains a question.
In summation, Barkley has the prototype size and athletic profile for the modern-day NFL running back, there’s no doubting that. It’s important to note that the concerns I have raised here are not to dismiss Barkley’s potential as an elite level prospect, only to bring attention to areas in which he can improve. No prospect is perfect, but my educated guess is that Barkley is talented enough to overcome the small flaws in his game.