Saquon Barkley of Penn State was picked No. 2 overall by the Giants during the first round of the 2018 draft. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, a consensus early-first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft, was selected No. 2 overall by the New York Giants. The 6-foot, 233-pound 2017 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns on 272 carries in his final year for the Nittany Lions and has all the qualities scouts look for in a three-down back who can also catch passes out of the backfield.

Some, like his trainer Bert Whigham, even go as far to say he is a generational talent. Giants General Manager Dave Gettleman went a step further with his praise on Thursday night, citing divine intervention.

He was touched by the hand of God, frankly,” Gettleman told Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News.

Whigham and Gettleman aren’t the only ones setting expectations high. Barkley’s draft profile on NFL.com lists Barry Sanders as his closest comparable while NFL executives polled by NFL.com writer Daniel Jeremiah compare Barkley to Superman, a better version of Kareem Hunt, a more explosive Joe Mixon and a better all-around back than Ezekiel Elliot.

There’s just one problem: We can’t be totally sure Barkley will emerge as the best running back in this draft, because talent evaluators in the NFL have an unproven track record. Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in 2012, was compared to Adrian Peterson but spent just three seasons in the NFL, never surpassing his 950-yard, 11-touchdown rookie campaign. Curtis Enis (No. 5 in 1998), Cedric Benson (No. 4 in 2005) and Cadillac Williams (No. 5 in 2005) are also high picks that never panned out.

In addition, there isn’t much of a skill difference between running backs selected in the early rounds compared to those taken later in the draft. Since 2011, the first year under the current collective bargaining agreement, earlier picks do get more opportunities over the first four years of their career; however, first-round picks averaged 4.74 scrimmage yards per touch while seventh-round backs averaged 4.34, a difference of 40 yards per 100 touches.

   2011 to 2017 First four years of their career
Round RBs drafted Percentage of games started Touches per game Scrimmage yards per touch
1 20 76% 16.7 4.74
2 25 48% 12.6 4.75
3 23 33% 11.0 4.86
4 31 27% 7.4 4.71
5 26 29% 7.3 4.59
6 23 26% 7.2 4.54
7 16 22% 5.2 4.34

And there isn’t even much separating Barkley from the other first-round picks selected Thursday — Rashaad Penny to the Seahawks at No. 27, and Sony Michel to the Patriots at No. 31 — and projected second-round picks such as Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb, Royce Freeman, Ronald Jones II and Kerryon Johnson. For example, according to Sports Info Solutions, Barkley averaged 5.9 yards per carry in 2017, with 3.3 of those yards coming after contact. Michel, Penny, Chubb and Freeman were all more efficient at the former and all but Guice and Johnson were more productive than Barkley at the latter. The entire group also had more broken tackles per attempt than Barkely did last season.

Seattle Seahawks General Manager John Schneider, who selected Penny with the 27th pick, even cited Penny’s analytics when asked whether he was concerned that Penny did not carry a heavy workload at San Diego State.

“He’s had a couple years of production. He had 1,000 yards last year. That’s not a concern at all,” Schneider said. “He had some really interesting analytics and stats about him with durability, run after contact, run after first contact. He actually, of this group [of running backs], was number one in both categories.”

RB Yards per attempt Yards per attempt after contact Broken tackles per attempt
Rashaad Penny 7.7 5.0 29.6%
Nick Chubb 6.1 4.0 32.3%
Sony Michel 7.9 4.0 26.6%
Ronald Jones II 5.9 4.0 24.1%
Royce Freeman 6.0 3.5 24.6%
Saquon Barkley 5.9 3.3 20.3%
Derrius Guice 5.3 3.2 28.7%
Kerryon Johnson 4.9 2.8 21.1%

Some will point to Barkley’s elite 40-yard dash time at the combine (4.40 seconds) as an indicator of exceptional talent; that also is flawed, because there is a big difference between game speed and how well a player runs in shorts against a stop watch. Josh Hermsmeyer, creator of the game speed app on his site airyards.com, illustrates this with a comparison of Joe Mixon and T.J. Yeldon. Mixon ran a 4.50 40-yard time in 2017, faster than Yeldon (4.61) in 2015. However, as you can see in the chart below, Yeldon’s actual game speed is superior.


(airyards.com)

The takeaway here is not that Barkley isn’t a great player or that he will fail at the NFL level — his abilities as a rusher and pass-catcher are undeniable — but rather he appears to be overvalued by the Giants and expectations that he is a one-in-a-lifetime back are perhaps overblown.

In addition, the Giants had a chance to find the heir apparent to 37-year-old quarterback Eli Manning and give the franchise some stability at the most important position on the field. Baker Mayfield, selected by the Cleveland Browns No. 1 overall, was perhaps the safest bet among the quarterback prospects, but USC’s Sam Darnold was not too far behind.

According to data provided by Sports Info Solutions, Darnold, like Mayfield, was an above-average passer when facing pressure (73.9 passer rating) last season and led all Division I quarterbacks with 1,178 yards passing in these situations. His 96 passing attempts out of the pocket in 2017 were the eighth-most in the nation and his 91.5 passer rating was 32nd out of 153 quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts on the run.

Darnold was also adept at using his running backs as receivers, completing 37 of 44 throws (84 percent, 12th-highest in the country in 2017) — not including shovel passes — for 423 yards and a touchdown to a player out of the backfield. That seems like a perfect fit for the Giants: Manning threw 134 passes to his running backs in 2017, the fifth-most among NFL quarterbacks.

Time will tell if Gettleman and the Giants made the right choice, but if history is any guide, it was a shortsighted move that could keep the team at the bottom of the standings for the foreseeable future.

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