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The Giants’ big bet on Saquon Barkley was doomed from the start

Giants running back Saquon Barkley has had many spectacular moments as a pro, but he has not carried his team’s offense. (Tyler Kaufman/AP)

Saquon Barkley rode on a cart off the AT&T Stadium turf, into a tunnel and out of view. His left leg lay flat in front of him, his ankle swollen and puffy after a fluke injury. He had stepped on a Dallas Cowboys defensive back’s foot at the end of a play, away from the ball, and rolled his ankle at a ghastly angle. He fell to the ground, the latest disruption in a snakebit career.

The No. 2 pick in the NFL draft is an asset that can reshape a franchise’s trajectory, a reward for ineptitude that opens a universe of possibilities. The New York Giants chose Barkley second in 2018 against all modern wisdom. He was a spectacular player with impeccable character. He also played running back, a position long established as volatile, prone to decline and abundant in supply. The Giants, most vocally General Manager Dave Gettleman, insisted Barkley transcended those tenets.

Barkley’s latest injury may not radically change his career, as did the torn ACL he suffered in Week 2 of 2020. NFL Network reported Barkley will certainly miss next week but hopes to return in Week 7. The misfortune still offers an opportunity to appraise the Giants’ choice in 2018, which only further cemented a folly most everybody could see coming.

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The Giants wagered that Barkley’s career would be a counterexample to the diminishing value of running backs. It has instead been a testament to it. The Giants chose second in a quarterback-rich draft with Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson still available at a time when they obviously needed a successor to Eli Manning. Even if the Giants viewed those quarterbacks as unworthy of the pick, another team would have traded a haul for the chance to take one of them. Through little fault of his own, Barkley has proved how doomed his selection was from the start.

On some weeks, and especially some plays, Barkley can look like the best running back in the NFL. He has not changed the Giants’ fortunes. They are 9-27 in games he has played during his career. He led the league with 2,028 scrimmage yards as a rookie and played all 16 games. The Giants went 5-11.

Even at his most spectacular, Barkley showed the shortcomings of building a franchise around a running back. The rest of the NFL has continued to show that great running backs can be mined at little cost. While half of all teams start quarterbacks they drafted in the first round, just six (the Giants included) start running backs they selected in Round 1. The Giants would be thrilled if they deployed a running back as versatile and productive as Austin Ekeler, the Los Angeles Chargers star who went undrafted.

The problem the Giants face now is that Barkley, only 24, could be leaving the ranks of elite running backs. Running backs wear down faster than any other position, and the toll has already extracted some of Barkley’s impact. Barkley still flashes greatness. Last week, he lined up wide, caught a short pass and burst through the entire New Orleans Saints defensive backfield for a game-swinging touchdown. But snap to snap or year to year, he does not carry an offense.

In the three years since his brilliant rookie season, Barkley has played in 20 of 37 games. His production when on the field has waned. He is averaging 3.6 yards per carry. As context, 42 qualified running backs this season are gaining at least 3.6 yards per carry. Wayne Gallman, Barkley’s primary replacement last year, averaged 4.6 yards in 2020. The Giants drafted him in the fourth round the year before they took Barkley.

The Giants must sort out their future with a player they planned to build around. They picked up Barkley’s fifth-year option in April, which given the $7.2 million salary cap hit was an uncomplicated choice. Given his level of stardom and his ceiling, Barkley probably will want to surpass the $12.5 million average annual salary Derrick Henry pulled down in his recent extension.

“I said it at the end of the season and I’ll say it again: We hope he’s going to be a Giant for life, and at the appropriate time we’ll start those discussions,” Giants owner John Mara said last spring.

Gettleman, the general manager who chose Barkley, may not last to see those negotiations if the Giants suffer another listless season. They are 1-4 this year and 16-37 since 2018. That is difficult for a general manager to survive.

The Giants selected Barkley with the hope he would alter their franchise, that he would reverse a fall into irrelevance. It is possible, maybe closer to probable, that Barkley will never appear in the postseason for the Giants. Barkley could still be a great running back. The Giants have already seen how little that can matter — and how unnecessary it was to devote the resources they did to finding one.

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