Going Deep: Why Saquon Barkley Will Outperform His Amazing Rookie Year
Saquon Barkley was absolutely phenomenal in his inaugural season with the New York Giants and he completely blew away the lofty expectations set upon him by his draft position, the media, and the NYC metropolitan area. At 6’0 and 233 pounds, Barkley possesses a rare combination of speed and power and he routinely showed it off as a rookie.
After being selected with the second pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft, Barkley had an unbelievable amount of pressure to contribute early and often for a team with recent offensive struggles. He met those lofty expectations by putting together a rookie year for the record books. Barkley ran for an impressive 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns while also adding 91 catches for 721 yards and another four scores through the air. His efforts were met with a haul of accolades along with a haul of both NFL and franchise records:
- Offensive Rookie of the Year
- Pepsi Rookie of the Year
- Pro Bowl Selection
- First Team All-Pro Selection
- FedEx Ground Player of the Year
- Pro Football Writers Association All-Rookie Team
- Best Breakthrough Athlete ESPY Award
- Second most rushing yards in the NFL
- Lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage compiling 2,028 all-purpose yards, a record for a rookie in the NFL
- Collected the third most all-purpose yards for a rookie in NFL history
- Set a record for the most receptions by a rookie running back in NFL history
- Set the NY Giants record for the most combined rushing and receiving touchdowns by a rookie with 15
- Set the NY Giants record for the most rushing touchdowns by a rookie with 11
- Tied the NY Giants rookie record for receptions with 91 catches, also tied for the fourth most receptions in franchise history
- Barkley’s 14 receptions in Week 2 against the Cowboys set a Giants franchise record and tied an NFL record for the most catches by a rookie in a single game
- Barkley was able to reel off nine plays of 40 yards or more (only two players in NFL history have collected more big plays in a single season, Chris Johnson and Barry Sanders)
- Tied an NFL record held by Eric Dickerson for the most games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage by a rookie running back going over 100 combined yards 13 times
- Set the highest mark regarding overall speed reached on a rushing touchdown, clocked at 21.91 MPH
- Was the first NY Giants rookie running back to break the 1,000-yard rushing mark, and did it in Week 14
- Had the most runs in the NFL of 20 yards or more with 16
- Barkley made more players miss after making a catch than any other running back in the NFL with 31 forced missed tackles
- Tied a record held by Randy Moss with five touchdowns of 50 yards or more for a rookie player in NFL history
- Barkley is only one of six players in NFL history to have over 350 total touches without a single fumble
To make these accomplishments even more impressive, keep in mind that Barkley achieved all of the above behind a struggling and constantly changing offensive line. Starting center Jon Halapio was lost for the year halfway through Week 2 with a horrible leg injury after receiving the highest marks of any of the Giant’s offensive linemen in Week 1.
Veteran offensive lineman John Greco slid into the vacated center position and was eventually replaced by Spencer Pulley. The undrafted rookie free agent Chad Wheeler supplanted the constantly underachieving Erik Flowers as the starting right tackle midway through Week 3. The newly acquired Patrick Ohameh was benched prior to Week 7 for poor play and Greco slid over to his natural position of guard giving way to Pulley at the center position.
Greco eventually gave way to another waiver wire pickup when Jamon Brown was brought on after being claimed off the waiver wire. Nate Solder struggled through a slow start to the season as the left tackle and Will Hernandez took some time to adjust to the rigors of playing in the NFL as a rookie guard, though his future undoubtedly looks bright.
Solder and Hernandez were the only two offensive linemen that started and ended the season in their natural positions. In total, three-fifths of the Giants offensive line was manned by a new player by Week 7 of Barkley’s rookie year, yet his march into the record books hardly took a hit.
Things are looking much brighter for Barkley and his offensive line for the upcoming NFL Season. Solder and Hernandez will return to their respective positions after having a full season combined with two off-seasons of working together and developing chemistry. Halapio is slated to return as the starting center with a solid and battle-tested backup behind him in Pulley (who actually achieved the highest pass block win rate of any of the Giants offensive linemen in the last season).
The biggest and most impactful changes come on the right side of the offensive line with the additions of Kevin Zeitler and Mike Remmers. Zeitler is widely considered to be one of the best and most reliable players at his position in the league, constantly finishing at or near the top of rankings for guards over the last few years.
Remmers has proven to be a reliable commodity, he has a history with head coach Pat Shurmur, and he will likely replace Wheeler as the starting right tackle–Remmers natural position. The group of Solder, Hernandez, Halapio, Zeitler, and Remmers have all the makings to be the best offensive line that the NY Giants have fielded in years and must have Barkley excited at the potential holes they can open up for him.
With an upgraded and more experienced offensive line, an expanding playbook in Shurmur’s second year, and a record-breaking rookie season under Barkley’s belt, the sky is the limit for what Barkley can achieve in his second year. Now there will certainly be challenges to combat; The trade of Odell Beckham means this offense will literally start and stop with Barkley’s massive legs. It also vacates 124 targets from last year that Barkley will certainly receive a share of.
Barkley will also be the unquestioned focal point for defenses and will regularly face loaded boxes as a runner. Fortunately, this will not be entirely new. Barkley faced eight-man fronts on 22.99% of his carries last season and he still found incredible success. In fact, during the Week 14 match-up with the Redskins Barkley put up the most yards against eight or more defenders crowding the line of scrimmage (LOS) since that stat started getting tracked back in 2016 by running for 141 yards and a score on eight carries against a stacked box.
The Giants offense in the upcoming season will heavily feature Barkley as both a runner and receiver and give him ample opportunities to dwarf his rookie campaign in both raw statistical output and positive plays. When looking into Barkley’s rookie production, it’s hard to find much fault, but upon a deeper dive into his usage, there appears to be quite a large amount of room for him to improve.
Playing on a team with a losing record and a rough overall start to the season, Barkley was the beneficiary of lots of garbage time play where the Giants were down by over 10 points in the fourth quarter of games. During these periods Barkley was often used as a check down option in the passing game limiting his ability to play in space and take true advantage of his athleticism. In the upcoming season, the Giants will look to be a more competitive team focused on ball control, both aspects that could greatly benefit Barkley and his potential output.
Barkley brings the consistent threat of breaking a big play from anywhere on the field and matches that with no injury concerns and absolutely incredible ball security. He gets a massive boost in points per reception (PPR) leagues, has the same coaching staff in place from his rookie year, and will most likely see more action as a true receiving threat to take advantage of his abilities further away from the LOS.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Barkley challenges for the league’s rushing title and adds to his yardage totals through the air in his Sophomore season. He has the potential to break the 1,000-yard mark as both a runner and receiver and could conceivably challenge for the league MVP award.
As A Receiver:
During his rookie year, Barkley was often tasked with creating on his own when used as a receiver, catching a majority of his passes close to a full yard behind the LOS. He was also forced to make the first defender miss on a majority of his catches before even seeing positive yardage, evidenced by his league-leading 31 forced missed tackles as a receiver. With the ability to be a three-down back and an offense that will aim to use him as a true receiving threat and utilize his athleticism in space, he is in a prime position to push his yardage numbers through the air to an even higher stratosphere and continue to rewrite NFL record books.
Barkley was the second most targeted running back in the passing game and generated the fourth highest yardage totals of all running backs when used as a receiver. Keeping that in mind, a majority of Barkley’s receptions came when he was used as a safety valve or check down option and not as a true upfield receiving threat. Out of Barkley’s total 121 targets, zero of them sought to get the ball to him while he played out of the slot position and he only lined up in the slot a total of five times throughout the season.
In total Barkley saw only 36 snaps while he was lined up as a receiver away from the backfield and only caught three passes for 47 yards in those positions. Barkley’s average depth per reception was a negative 0.7 yards behind the LOS, demonstrating exactly how he was underutilized during his rookie year and just how much room for growth he has as a receiver.
Had Barkley’s average depth per reception simply been equal to the LOS just that small differential would amount to him moving from fourth to second in receiving yards for all running backs. When you combine that fact with the Beckham trade and the expanded use of Barkley in the passing game, it allows for a vast amount of improvement for the upcoming season.
When Beckham was lost to injury for the final four games of last season conventional wisdom would sway you to think that the way Barkley was used as a receiver would have evolved, which was true in some measurements but false in others. Instead of catching swing passes behind the LOS, he was used as more of an option to attack defenses, not just as a check down.
Over the final four games of the season, Barkley was targeted 28 times. Out of those 28 targets seven of them sought to get the ball to Barkley in space, away from defenders to take full advantage of his immense skill set as a receiver. In average during the final four games, Barkley caught the ball either at the LOS or within five yards of it, a massive improvement over his season average of negative 0.7 yards behind it.
During the latter half of the season, the Giants showed a renewed effort to get the ball to Barkley as a receiver in more dynamic ways. He ran routes that took him upfield more than the start of the season and had more pre-snap movement to create mismatches with defenders. That being said, Barkley still made a majority of his receptions near the LOS and was not the beneficiary of complex play design or blocking schemes in the passing game to make the most of his abilities.
He was still required to do most, if not all of the work on his own. With the shifts in the offense during this past off-season, I would expect a continued and renewed effort to use Barkley as a true attacking option upfield, increased complexity in play design combined with better blocking after the catch, and more complex route trees.
This alone has the capability to create added value and production to a player who already broke and set so many records as a rookie. In the below video you can see what Barkley is capable of when he has blockers out in front to clear the way:
The sheer number of targets Barkley was the beneficiary of also allow for continued success if duplicated in the upcoming season. As a rookie, Barkley was only one of four running backs that saw over 100 targets in the passing game. Since the 2016 season, there have only been a handful of running backs who saw such a high volume of involvement in the passing game.
It’s possible that Barkley may see a regression in terms of overall targets during the upcoming season. It’s also just as possible for him to achieve more with less if he is put in better positions when being used as a receiver.
In the chart below you can see that only two running backs were able to garner over 100 targets in back to back seasons since 2016. You can also see that several running backs were able to gain more yards than Barkley was while receiving both less overall targets and making fewer catches.
This shows that if put in the right position while used as a receiver, Barkley has the capability to increase his total yards while making less catches. Given that Beckham is gone and that his amount of targets is likely to stay the same or even increase, he has all the factors working in his favor to be the number one receiving back in the upcoming season.
|Player Name||Team||Year||Total Targets||Receptions||Yards|
As A Runner:
Barkley generated an NFL leading 736 yards of his 1,307 rushing yards after initial contact and showed the ability to create space through and around defenders. From reports coming out of the Meadowlands Barkley has actually bulked up during the off-season and is tipping the scales closer to 240 pounds versus his playing weight last year of 233.
A scary prospect for any player that might be in his pathway to success. Barkley also faced a loaded box on 23% of his runs during his rookie year and was still met with incredible productivity, he must be salivating at the thought of what he can do behind a new and experienced offensive line as a follow-up. In the following video Barkley’s dynamic abilities are on full display as he creates yardage in every way imaginable:
Even after being met with massive achievements as a rookie there are areas where Barkley can continue to grow and improve as a pure runner. Let’s take a look at Barkley’s average success rate per run. This metric is calculated by taking the total amount of successful runs that a player had and dividing it by the number of runs over the entire season. For this article I am including all downs and distances and am defining a successful run as the following:
- Any run that gains more than six yards regardless of down and distance
- Any running play where half the yards to reach a new first down are gained
- Any running play that generates a new first down
- Any run on first down that generates 40% or more of the yardage required to gain a new first down
When discounting running backs with less than 100 total carries Barkley works out to be the 40th most successful running back in the NFL last season with a successful run percentage of 41%, with the league average coming out to 47.5%. This actually puts Barkley towards the bottom of this category with only six players with an overall lower successful run percentage.
Given that Barkley generated the second highest total yardage running the ball (1,307) yet had an overall lower average successful run percentage when compared to the league average the disparity between consistently positive runs versus large individual gains becomes even more clear.
|Ranking||Player Name||Success Rate||Total Attempts||Yards||Touchdowns|
Surprisingly Barkley had the lowest overall success rate when running behind the left side of his offensive line and the highest percentage when running behind the right side of the line (from center to right tackle) or going wide left to the sideline. The only runs that gave him a higher success rate than the league average came behind his right guard where Barkley was successful on 56% of his runs.
This was also a spot along the offensive line where Barkley had some of his lowest total attempts with just 27 runs, which probably has a lot to do with the constantly rotating players at right guard until Jamon Brown solidified the position. In contrast, Barkley had 78 attempts using the center as his main blocker and 38 using his left guard. If we take into consideration Barkley’s enormous potential for breaking a big play and combine that with more consistent production along the offensive line we are met with the potential of Barkley surpassing his rookie year in pure running production.
Barkley is rarely taken off the field and as a rookie saw the third highest total snap counts of any running back with 853 offensive snaps. Only Ezekiel Elliott and Christian McCaffrey were on the field for more snaps overall than Barkley, and the only other running back who saw over 800 offensive snaps was Todd Gurley. Definitely some elite company.
If I had to find a comparison for what to expect in Barkley’s second year I would look at two Hall of Famers, Erik Dickerson and LaDainian Tomlinson, along with four-time Pro-Bowler Edgerrin James and what they did as a follow up to the success they were met within their rookie seasons.
|Player Name||Rushes||Yards||Touchdowns||Receptions||Yards||Touchdowns||Total Yards|
|Saquon Barkley (Rookie)||261||1307||11||91||721||4||2028|
|Eric Dickerson (Rookie)||390||1808||18||51||404||2||2212|
|Eric Dickerson (Year 2)||379||2105||14||21||139||0||2244|
|LaDainian Tomlinson (Rookie)||339||1236||10||59||367||0||1603|
|LaDainian Tomlinson (Year 2)||372||1683||14||79||486||1||2172|
|Edgerrin James (Rookie)||369||1553||13||62||586||4||2139|
|Edgerrin James (Year 2)||387||1709||13||63||594||5||2303|
With Barkley’s abilities, the opportunities afforded to him to contribute vacated targets from the Beckham trade, influx of talent on the offensive line, and familiarity with the offense; things are definitely looking bright for the young phenom. Barkley has rooms to grow as both a receiver and runner and I fully expect another year of record-setting production.
Graphic by Justin Paradis @freshmeatcomm on Twitter