Since the conclusion of the 2017 NFL Draft I’ve shifted my attention to the 2018 class as I try to get an early feel for next year’s crop of draft-eligible prospects. So far in my preview of the upcoming class I’ve looked at several consensus top prospects such as UCLA’s Josh Rosen, USC’s Sam Darnold, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, and LSU’s Arden Key. Though it’s still very early in the process I can tell you this much: no prospect has stood out to me more than Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.
“To my eye, Saquon Barkley is, without a doubt, the most explosively athletic top running back prospect that I’ve studied in five years of scouting the NFL Draft.”
It wasn’t long ago that running back was considered a devalued position in the NFL. When you consider the frequently-cited arguments against taking a running back in the first round it’s easy to understand why the position has been devalued in recent years. The hit rate on first-round running backs, which hasn’t been great — especially in recent years — is one frequently-cited argument in support of this philosophy.
Proponents of this philosophy also commonly point to the trend of shorter careers for running backs in comparison to other positions. Perhaps the best rationale for supporting this philosophy, though, is the argument that quality running backs can be found on Day 2, and sometimes even Day 3 of the draft. After all, Devonta Freeman was a 4th-round pick in the 2014 draft. David Johnson was a 3rd-round pick in the 2015 draft. Jordan Howard was a 5th-round pick in the 2016 draft. The point is, quality running backs can usually be found beyond the first round.
So the reluctance by NFL decision-makers to invest first-round draft picks into the position was understandable, then. After all, who wants to spend a first-round pick on a player if you think you can get 80-, 90-, or 100-percent of their production from a second, third, fourth, or even a fifth-round pick? That was the prevailing notion around the league just a few short years ago.
But the thinking has since changed. After a 2-year hiatus between 2013 and 2014, the first-round running back made a triumphant return in 2015 with the selections of Todd Gurley (10th overall) and Melvin Gordon (15th overall). The trend then continued in 2016 with the selection of Ezekiel Elliott (4th overall), and again in 2017 with the selections of Leonard Fournette (4th overall) and Christian McCaffrey (8th overall).
I think it’s safe to say that the first-round running back is back in style, and it’s easy to see why when you consider the caliber of prospects that the college game has produced at the position in recent years. But that’s all in the past. Let’s shift our attention to the future, and onto the prospective 2018 class in particular.
Penn State’s Saquon Barkley currently headlines the prospective 2018 running back class, though he’ll likely face competition for the distinction of top-rated player at the position from other players such as LSU’s Derrius Guice. So how does Barkley stack up in comparison to these players as well as to his predecessors from recent draft classes?
To my eye, Saquon Barkley is, without a doubt, the most explosively athletic top running back prospect that I’ve studied in five years of scouting the NFL draft. To illustrate my point, a report from Penn State’s Pro Day this March clocked Barkley at a blistering 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash. For context, that time would have ranked as the fastest 40-yard dash by a running back at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine. Barkley absolutely destroys pursuit angles with his blistering speed and is a legitimate threat to take it the distance each and every time he touches the football.
Barkley isn’t just explosive in a straight line, either. He’s also an explosive jump-cutter who can stop and start, as well as cut and reaccelerate. Barkley’s lateral agility and change-of-direction skills are about as good as I’ve seen from a running back in the 14 years I’ve watched football.
Barkley’s diverse skill set offers much more than just explosive athleticism; however, as he also ranks among the most elusive running backs that I’ve ever studied. According to Pro Football Focus, Barkley forced 72 missed tackles in 2016 — a statistic that ranked him fourth nationally for the year. That’s an astonishing number when you frame it in the context of 14 games, and it’s also just one of the many special traits that Barkley brings to the table.
Power and contact balance are other desirable traits for running backs, and both represent areas of strength for the young running back. Barkley isn’t the punishing runner you might expect him to be given his 5-foot-11, 223-pound frame, but his 2016 average of 3.3 yards after contact suggests that he’s a tough player to tackle. It shows on film, too, as you consistently see him falling forward for extra yards, pulling through arm tackles, and maintaining his balance after contact.
Of course, none of these traits would matter nearly as much if Barkley couldn’t identify and hit running lanes, but that’s just another area where the Nittany Lion running back excels. Barkley displays great feel as a runner with regard to setting up blocks and anticipating creases before they develop. Despite running behind one of the nation’s worst run-blocking offensive lines over the past two seasons, Barkley has managed to put together a very productive career to this point, accumulating over 2500 rushing yards and 30 total touchdowns in his 25 starts for the Nittany Lions. Much of this success can be attributed to his vision and patience as he consistently finds running room despite operating in tight quarters much of the time.
Barkley isn’t just a talented runner, either. In addition to his remarkable traits as a ball-carrier, Barkley possesses excellent receiving skills. As a receiver Barkley displays natural hands and good route running ability. The Nittany Lion runner also displays body control to adjust to off-target passes, and he has shown the versatility to run an assortment of routes whether he’s deployed as a receiver out of the backfield or flexed out in the slot. Regardless of where he lines up, Barkley’s speed and quickness make him a matchup nightmare for linebackers.
While Saquon Barkley is a very clean prospect overall, there is one area of his game where I feel he could improve significantly. As is the case with most young running backs, Barkley struggles with consistency in pass protection. As a pass protector Barkley is assignment aware, but inconsistent technique leads to inconsistent results. You could also argue that Barkley gets too bounce-happy at times, but my feeling is that he typically only bounces runs when it’s absolutely necessary.
To sum it all up: Saquon Barkley is a special talent. I rarely invoke comparisons to hall-of-famers when discussing NFL draft prospects, but speaking strictly in terms of potential, I think that Barkley could end up being good as Marshall Faulk. That may sound ridiculous, but that’s who he reminds me of from a talent perspective. Whenever he ultimately decides to declare, Barkley will enter the draft as one of the most complete running back prospects in recent memory. If Barkley is able to replicate or build upon his success as a sophomore he’ll all but ensure his status as a top-5 pick next April.