Charting the 2018 Running Back Class: Saquon Barkley

Bruce Matson

In the last few years, we have seen some dynamic running back prospects coming out of the draft. Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey were all drafted in the top ten and it appears the enigma Saquon Barkley will follow suit. He may be the most anticipated running back prospect to enter the NFL in quite a long time.

Barkley has been a household name for the last three years. Some people consider him the best running back prospect of all-time. With a bevy of highlight-reel runs, solid production and a clean bill of health, Barkley has very few blemishes on his resume.

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Catching the ball out of the backfield is one of the key attributes to a running back’s success. Barkley should be one of the top receiving backs once he enters the NFL. At Penn State, he commanded a 12.41 percent target share of his team’s passing attempts. His 68 passing targets ranked seventh amongst all collegiate running backs. In order for him to be one of the most targeted backs in the nation, Barkley had to catch three or more passes in ten of the 13 games that he played in, averaging 4.2 receptions per game. All of those targets equated to 54 catches for 611 yards and three touchdowns, making him one of the most lethal receiving backs in the nation.

Not only did he accumulate a lot of targets, but he was efficient with those targets, catching 79.41 percent of the passes thrown his way. Only 14 of the quarterback’s pass attempts to Barkley didn’t result in a catch. He also managed to churn out 8.99 yards per target and 11.31 yards per reception. Per Pro Football Focus, he averaged 1.9 yards per route that he ran and only dropped 7.7 percent of his passes. Dynasty enthusiasts who play in PPR leagues should be salivating over Barkley’s prowess in the passing game, because his receiving ability alone is enough to make his a highly sought-after asset in fantasy.

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Barkley broke out during his freshman season, rushing for 115 yards and one touchdown against Buffalo in his second career game. Since then, he has been a one-man wrecking crew, eclipsing the 100-yard mark 15 times in his career. On the flip side, he failed to reach 50 yards rushing just five times with three of those games occurring during his junior season. In 2016, Barkley led all sophomores with a 31.34 market share percentage. From day one, he was the focal point of Penn State’s offense. Whoever drafts Barkley will instantly make him a key player in their offense.

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*The chart above is derived from a 21-game sample, equating to a total of 387 carries.

The notion that surrounds Barkley is that he likes to bounce his runs to the outside of the defense. He has a tendency to use his short area quickness to slip by defenders once he hits the second level. Anything can happen when he has the ball in his hands. That’s what makes him great. He could run the ball up the middle of the defense on one play and then utilize multiple jump-cuts to move from one side of the field to the other on the next play.

There’s an impression that has been bestowed by many draft analysts that Barkley doesn’t like contact. However, he has demonstrated numerous times that he’s more than capable of using his size to finish runs. When compared to most backs, he has more tools at his disposal to beat defenders in the open field. At his size (230-pounds), Barkley has the ability to make hard plants and cuts to scoot by the opposition for sizable gains. There aren’t many running backs who can do that, and he will always take the opportunity to showcase this attribute whenever possible. A lot of his highlight-reel runs are predicated on him juking out multiple defenders without losing speed. When you have multiple different ways to beat the opposing defense, things are not going to look traditional when compared to your average running back prospect.

Barkley’s runs were designed to go outside the tackle box on 28.94 percent of his carries with most of his runs designated to go to the right. Penn State took advantage of his lateral agility by having him run to the outside more than most backs. He also has the speed to get to the edge and outrun the entire defense. By allocating a large portion of his runs to the outside, Penn State tried to maximize Barkley’s skill set for their gain.

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*The statistics in the chart above reflect how many times he lined up in the listed formations. The data is derived from a 21-game sample.

Penn State runs the spread offense and they typically run almost all of their plays out of the shotgun with three to four wide receivers lined up on the field (10 or 11 personnel). Just because Barkley played in a spread offense that operated primarily out of the shotgun, doesn’t mean he can’t play in a pro-style system. He just didn’t get many opportunities to play in I-formation and single back formations. From reviewing his film, he has the intangibles to run out of any scheme or formation. In this day and age, a large portion of the running backs in college football play in spread offenses.

According to Marcus Mosher, contributor to Bleacher Report and host of the Locked-on Cowboys Podcast, Barkley averaged 6.2 yards per carry in 10 or 11 personnel packages. Unfortunately, he rushed for just 3.01 yards per carry out of the rest of the personnel groupings. Keep in mind, he didn’t receive as much opportunity to play in jumbo sets. This statistic confirms that Barkley was very successful playing out of the spread.

In another tweet, Marcus Mosher stated that Barkley averaged 6.29 defenders in the box in 2017. This statistic goes hand-in-hand with Penn State’s spread offense. It’s hard for opposing defenses to load the box when the offense has three to four wide receivers lined up on the field. On the contrary, it’s easier to find holes to run through when the line of scrimmage isn’t loaded with defenders. When there are fewer bodies at the line of scrimmage, it’s easier for the offensive line to make rushing lanes for the running backs to run through.

Again, Barkley demonstrated the intangibles to play in a pro-style offense, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have trouble acclimating to the next level. We can only speculate at this point. He’s one of the best running back prospects to ever come out for the draft and he should have a long successful career, but it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that he struggles to adapt to the NFL game.

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The chart above is derived from a 21-game sample, equating to a total of 387 carries.

This isn’t a graph you would expect from the top running back prospect in the country. It’s hard to believe that 56.59 percent of his carries went for three yards or less. According to Football Outsiders, Penn State’s offensive line ranked 95th in the nation with a 21.3 percent stuff rate which means the running backs on the team were stopped at or behind on the line of scrimmage once every five carries. Even though the Nittany Lions had one of the worst offensive lines in college football, Barkley still churned out 1,271 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 5.9 yards per carry.

Pro Football Focus credited Barkley with a 66.3 elusive rating, ranking him 23rd amongst all running back prospects in this year’s draft. They also have him not getting tackled on first contact on 32.6 percent on his carries, ranking him 33rd in this year’s draft class. The aforementioned statistics correlate with the offensive line’s struggles this year. It’s hard to have an impressive elusive rating when the offensive line is allowing the running backs to consistently get tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Running backs can’t gather enough inertia to run over or slip by defenders when they are met in the backfield by the opposing defense. Barkley’s elusive rating and his tackles at first contact were greatly affected by the team’s dismal offensive line play. His elusive rating matters, but it should be taken with a grain of salt.

When it comes to blowing by the defense for long gains, Barkley is one of the best in this draft class with 31.78 percent of his carries going for 11 yards or more. He’s a threat to score every time he hits the second level of the defense and is possibly one of the most dangerous players in this draft class once he hits open space. It’s easy to see why he’s the most electric running back in this draft class.

SUMMARY

Barkley is my top running back in this draft class, but I don’t hold him on a pedestal over the rest of the running back prospects. I’ll gladly take him with the first overall pick in rookie drafts this year. However, I’m not going to mortgage my future to acquire his services. Due to the abundance of talent in this year’s running back class, I feel comfortable about my chances at landing a talented running back anywhere in the first round. Barkley is already one of the top dynasty prospects and his value should only increase to mythological proportions the closer we get to draft day.

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