Should Giants Make Saquon Barkley the Highest-Paid Running Back in NFL?

Jason Keidel
April 14, 2020 - 2:46 pm
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We hounded Dave Gettleman for drafting Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Not because we disliked the fine young man with freakish thighs, and certainly not because he didn't have talent, but because the NFL had marginalized the halfback to such a granular level it seemed that they were destined for rotations, like baseball bullpens, with the whole way more vital than any one player. 

But it turned out that Barkley was more than a good guy who ran hard. He was a game-changer, and game-breaker. It took just a few Sundays for us to see that Barkley wasn't just a great player but also a culture-changer, a young man wise beyond his years, and a born leader. So by the time he finished his resplendent rookie year, Barkley joined Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James as the only rushers to gain over 2,000 total yards in his maiden NFL season. And it's hard to put a price on such a kaleidoscopic set of skills. 

But the NFL must. With their cattle calls of pro days and combines, with muscles measured, weights lifted, and verticles logged, young men flanked by old men with stopwatches as if the 40-yard dash were a barometer of a young man's existence, everything has a purpose and a price.  

Still, Barkley may be the rare exception to this new rule, that halfbacks are spare parts to be tossed after their rookie contracts. We saw Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott cash-in on his considerable talents. Dallas realized Elliott was more than a runner, but also a pass-catcher and TD-maker. And now we've seen one more running back beam from the payday marquee. 

Christian McCaffrey - or C-Mac, if you prefer - just signed a four-year, $64 million extension with the Carolina Panthers. It makes him the richest rusher in history, his $16 million annual salary just above Elliott's $15 million. 

This is particularly poignant for Barkley because he's entering his third year. McCaffrey got his big deal after his sublime third season, in which he may have won NFL MVP if not for the ninja skills of Ravens QB Lamar Jackson. 

After his historic rookie year, Barkley fell off a bit in his sophomore season — an injury-addled campaign marred by a high ankle sprain. During the first two weeks of the 2019 season, when he was still healthy, Barkley picked up where he left off in 2018, averaging 11 yards and six yards per rush, respectively, while breaking 100 total yards in each game, both losses, with the Mesozoic Eli Manning still at QB. 

Then Barkley came back into his own in Week 15 and Week 16. Against the surprisingly scrappy Dolphins — who finished the season 5-4 — Barkley rumbled for 112 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The next week, against the Washington Redskins, Barkley found his superhero form. He rushed for 189 yards on just 22 carries (8.6 YPC) and also caught four passes for 90 yards, scoring two touchdowns while amassing 279 total yards in an adrenaline-draining, 41-35, overtime win. 

So just as McCaffrey auditioned for and sealed his new deal in his third year, so can Saquon Barkley in this, his third year. After three seasons McCaffrey had 39 total touchdowns (24 rushing) and 5,043 total yards. Barkley has 23 total TDs and 3,469 total yards. So despite his truncated second season, Barkley could, if healthy, match C-Mac's prodigious totals after three years. Also, Barkley just turned 23, and hasn't even entered his athletic prime. If you have a keen eye for fumbles, McCaffrey coughed it up six times, to just once for Barkley. 

So if Saquon Barkley rolls over the NFL this year — he needs 16 total touchdowns and about 1,400 total yards to match McCaffrey — is he worth the same eye-popping contract? Absolutely. Consider that Barkley is from the Bronx and plays for his local team, in America's media vortex, and all the cultural landmines that come with it. Add to that the fact that Barkley became a de facto captain almost the moment he stepped on a pro football field. McCaffrey at least started his career in the comforting shadow of QB Cam Newton. Barkley arrived as the presumed savior. 

Generally speaking, there is sound logic behind the NFL's bearish approach to running backs. They play the most violent position in the game, endure the most savage pounding, and are generally finished by age 30, when teams just pluck new runners from the college conveyor belt. But occasionally, there are players who transcend stats and salary cap slots. Just look at what Derrick Henry did for the Tennessee Titans, bowling over defenses for three quarters, reducing defenders to cringing matadors in the fourth quarter. 

Daniel Jones may be the emerging face of the Giants, but Barkley is the force behind them. They often say a quarterback's best friend is a robust running game. Very few run the ball, catch the ball, or change the contours of a football game, quite like Saquon Barkley, who was worth the draft pick used on him, and worth every dime spent on him. 

Twitter: @JasonKeidel