Barkley, elite backs demand a draft-day look

Saquon Barkley photo courtesy of Penn State Athletics

Saquon Barkley’s football stock was on the rise even before he ever set foot on the Penn State campus.

That’s because his football position has been on the rise.

The NFL did not select a running back in the first round of either the 2013 or 2014 drafts as Barkley was finishing up high school in Pennsylvania. The rule changes that placed an increasing emphasis on the passing game translated into a decreasing emphasis on the running game. NFL teams threw a record 18,136 passes in 2013 as three-receiver sets were supplanting the two-back sets in offenses. The 300-carry workhorse backs were disappearing.

So NFL teams were no longer investing premium dollars or premium draft picks in runners.

But that thinking began to change in 2015 when the St. Louis Rams selected Todd Gurley with a Top-10 pick. So special a runner was Gurley that the Rams were willing to invest the 10th overall choice in him even though he suffered a college knee injury the previous November that figured to slow his arrival onto an NFL field as a rookie.

The Dallas Cowboys claimed Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick of the 2016 draft, then the Jacksonville Jaguars followed up in 2017 with another investment of a Top-5 pick in a running back, LSU’s Leonard Fournette.

And the league once again was reminded of the value of a franchise running back.

Elliott led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards as a rookie, powering the Cowboys to 13 victories, an NFC East title and the top seed in the NFC playoff bracket. Fournette rushed for 1,040 yards as a rookie in 2017 and scored 10 touchdowns, helping the Jaguars return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and win their first division title since 1999.

Gurley warmed up to his elite status as stability in his knee returned by his third season in 2017, finishing as the NFL runnerup with 1,305 rushing yards and leading the league with 19 touchdowns. His legs powered the Rams to their first division title since 2003, and Gurley finished second in the NFL MVP voting behind Tom Brady.

So, yes, there is still a place in the NFL for the elite running back.

And Saquon Barkley is that elite running back in the Class of 2018. The completeness of his game should allow him to join Elliott and Fournette as a Top-5 pick.

Let’s start with his legs. Barkley became only the second player in Penn State history to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons (he elected to skip his senior season to enter the NFL draft). Gurley rushed for 3,843 career yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and scored 43 touchdowns. He also set a school record by scoring touchdowns in 15 consecutive games.

Now his hands. Barkley caught 102 career passes for 1,195 yards and eight more touchdowns. He’s the only player in Penn State history with 3,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a career.

Special teams? Barkley returned 14 kickoffs last season for an average of 28.4 yards, with two more touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown pass on a halfback option in 2017.

Speed? No problem. Barkley scored touchdowns of 92 and 81 yards on runs, 85 yards on a reception and 98 yards on a kickoff. There is no distance his legs can’t cover. And he has plenty of size at 5-11, 233 pounds.

Caliber of competition? Barkley could rise to the level of the opponent. He rushed for 194 yards against Southern Cal in a Rose Bowl, 137 against Washington in a Fiesta Bowl and 194 yards against Ohio State. He slapped a 200-yard game on Iowa and 100-yard games on Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska.

Yes, there is still a place in the NFL for an elite running back. The team that drafts Barkley this April will be drafting the favorite for NFL Rookie of the Year.

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