New York Giants Draft a Running Back in Round 1

After five seasons in the NFL, the former star of the New York Giants, Saquon Barkley draft selection in the 2018 NFL Draft is still hotly debated. The controversy has almost nothing to do with his skill and talent, and almost everything to do with his value. Why was it so controversial, and which camp was right?

But the franchise elected to move on from their longtime running back. Some speculate that a high-round draft pick could be used to find the eventual replacement. However, certain positions, especially in this year’s draft, are more likely to succeed than others. Using a first or second-round pick on Barkley’s replacement could be immeasurably beneficial. But does history show otherwise?

Barkley’s Rookie Season Quieted Many Naysayers

Running Back Saquon Barkley #26 of the New York Giants takes the field against Green Bay Packers

Saquon Barkley was hailed as a generational talent coming out of Penn State, an assessment Giants GM Dave Gettleman wholeheartedly agreed with. This led Gettleman to pick Barkley second in the 2018 draft. 

As the second overall pick in the 2018 draft, Barkley had much to live up to, but his numbers in his rookie season proved Gettleman right. During the New York Giants season, he gained 1307 yards in 16 games, scoring 11 rushing and four receiving touchdowns to earn Rookie of the Year honors and a Pro Bowl selection.

Injuries Kept Him Sidelined Before Return

Saquan Barkley, nfl free agency

Then came the next three seasons…and a whole host of injuries. From an ankle sprain in 2019 to an ACL tear in 2020, followed by an MCL sprain and another ankle sprain, Barkley missed over a third of the games from 2019 through 2021. In the 28 games played, he gained 1,630 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. 

Despite the multiple knee and ankle injuries, Barkley showed his worth during the 2022 season. He was finally healthy and perhaps played with a chip on his shoulder since the New York Giants declined to pick up his fifth-year option. Missing only one game during the season with a neck stinger, Barkley ran for 1312 yards and ten touchdowns, capping off the season with a playoff win and a Pro Bowl nod. 

However, the team and player could not agree on a long-term contract for his fifth year, so Saquon played on the franchise tag in 2023. In 14 games, he racked up 962 yards and 10 total touchdowns–a decent but not stellar performance. 

Again left unsigned, the New York Giants did not offer him a contract and let him explore free agency.  Barkley’s tenure as a New York Giant ended when he left in free agency

Debate: Was Barkley worth the New York Giants Pick?

The Barkley pick pitted New York Giants fans and pundits against each other. In one corner, some believed, like Gettleman, that his talent was worth spending the high draft capital. In another corner, others exclaimed that, despite his talent, no running back should be picked early in the first round.  

The reason for the divergence of opinion came down to how today’s game is played…and won. Premier offensive schemes no longer prioritized the running attack; instead, they focused on a mobile quarterback and a West Coast-style RPO passing game. 

Because of this philosophical shift, teams stopped allocating a high percentage of resources to the position. For example, in 2023, the average team spent roughly $7M–or 3% of cap dollars–on their entire running back room. The New York Giants were the third highest spenders, paying 5.5% of their cap dollars for running backs due to the high franchise number paid to Barkley. In contrast, the two-time Superbowl champion Chiefs allocated just over 2%.

Running Backs Should Not Be Taken at the Top

General managers must make tradeoff decisions because they’re resource-constrained under the NFL’s cap system. Top draft selections, especially those in the top five, come with compensation packages that inevitably take away the ability to pay other premium positions. 

For example, Barkley’s entry-level compensation was a four-year contract that included a $21M signing bonus and an average annual salary of $7.8M. In 2023, he played for the New York Giants on the franchise tag, earning $10.1M and an additional $2M signing bonus. 

To determine Barkley’s pay comparison, we used a group of running backs compiled by Spotrac and Devin Singletary, the running back the New York Giants signed after Barkley left for free agency. This group is ranked by their career stats, as shown in the table below. 

 

PLAYER GP% RUSH YDS/GM RUSH TD/GM REC FUM/GM RATING
Jonathan Taylor 2021-2022, IND 82.35 95.43 0.79 2.43 0.25 77.35
Aaron Jones 2019-2020, GB 93.75 72.93 0.83 3.2 0.17 81.85
James Conner 2020-2021, ARI 84.85 52.61 0.75 2.57 0.14 75.6
Miles Sanders 2021-2022, CAR 85.29 69.76 0.38 1.59 0.1 72.65
Devin Singletary 2022-2023 103.13 52.03 0.27 0.12 2.06 73.35
Saquon Barkley 2022-2023 90.91 75.8 0.53 3.27 0.1 73.75

Source: Spotrac

Based on their stats and compensation, it’s easy to see that Barkley’s entry-level contract is far richer than his counterparts, and the New York Giants would have been better served picking a player for a premium position than a running back with the number two draft pick. 

PLAYER Draft Rd/Pick Rookie Contract ($M) Average ($M) Draft Year
Jonathan Taylor  Rd 2/41 7.829 1.957 2020
Aaron Jones  Rd 5/182 2.601 0.650 2017
James Conner  Rd 3/105 3.161 0.790 2017
Miles Sanders  Rd 2/53 5.350 1.337 2019
Devin Singletary  Rd 3/74 3.898 0.975 2019
Saquon Barkley  Rd 1/2 31.195 7.799 2018

Source: Spotrac

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Kris Zucchi has been a N.Y. sports fan since she was a kid. She’ll tell you she loves three things in this world: family, football, and finance. While the business of sports is her primary focus, she can talk about every sport, all the time!

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