Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Poor Saquon Barkley. He keeps tumbling down the draft board, and there is not a darn thing he can do about it.
Barkley will participate, on a limited basis, in Penn State’s pro day workouts Tuesday. Last Wednesday was declared Saquon Barkley Day by the Pennsylvania legislature. Yet this has hardly been Barkley’s week. Because of circumstances beyond his control, the running back who gained 1,903 scrimmage yards last season, finished fourth on the Heisman Trophy ballot and blew the roof off Lucas Oil Stadium at the combine is becoming the forgotten man at the top of the NFL draft class.
A lot has changed for Barkley. But none of it was good. Worst of all, none of it directly involved him in any way.
Barkley ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash at 233 pounds at the combine in early March, registered an unearthly 41-inch vertical jump and benched 29 reps of 225 pounds. Those are Odell Beckham Jr.-caliber speed and leap numbers packed onto the frame of Todd Gurley II. The jaw-dropping performance was enough to make nitpicking about Barkley’s minor flaws and clinging to Never Draft a Running Back Early commandments seem silly. There was scuttlebutt that the Browns would throw Moneyball to the wind (something they’ve mostly done anyway) and take Barkley with the first pick in the draft.
Just days after the combine, the Browns agreed to trade for Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry, setting themselves up with a starting quarterback and possession receiver while leaving a Barkley-sized hole at running back on their 2018 depth chart. Even if the Browns opted for another quarterback with their top pick, they could have still turned around and selected Barkley with the fourth pick—assuming the Colts, who sound reasonably certain Andrew Luck will be doing more than squeezing stress balls by training camp, didn’t make Barkley their workhorse runner with the third pick.
So Barkley was a mortal lock to be one of the first four players selected in April’s draft just a few days ago.
Then came Saquon Barkley Day in the state of Pennsylvania, which was the first day of NFL free agency for the rest of the football world, which brought a sequence of events that made Barkley’s draft stock plummet.
First, the Browns signed running back Carlos Hyde. The running back-needy Giants, picking second in the draft, added veteran Jonathan Stewart. Neither move precludes the addition of Barkley, but they do signal that teams at the top of the draft board have a running back-by-committee mentality. Teams rarely draft committee members at the top of the first round.
Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Then quarterback musical chairs started, and the Jets were left standing next to Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater. Unwilling to wait for next week’s owners’ meetings to engage in a bidding war for draft picks against other teams dissatisfied with the results of the Kirk Cousins rose ceremony, the Jets traded two second-round picks this year plus a second next year to leap from sixth to third overall on the draft board.
No team in the 21st century is contrary enough to trade massive draft capital to move up and nab a running back. Not even the Jets. So Barkley is obviously out of the picture for the third overall pick.
But with the Jets now selecting third, the Browns cannot take Barkley first and be assured of landing a quarterback they like with the fourth pick. So the Jets trade effectively eliminated Barkley’s chances of being the first overall pick.
But wait, there’s more. By leapfrogging the Broncos and playing their hand by moving to the third spot, the Jets created a market among the quarterback-hungry masses for the Giants’ second overall pick. If the Giants lock on to a quarterback of the future themselves, then the Browns’ fourth pick may be the only game in town for teams that missed out on other opportunities or are trying to psych themselves up for AJ McCarron or Sam Bradford as their opening-day starter.
Let’s reset the top of the draft board and search for likely Barkley landing spots in the wake of the Jets-Colts trade:
Browns: They’ll draft the top quarterback prospect. Chance of Barkley: roughly 0 percent.
Giants: Eli Manning can keep the offense functional in the short term, and Davis Webb is a semifeasible quarterback of the future. So the Giants could take Barkley. Or a legit quarterback of the future. Or once-a-decade guard prospect Quenton Nelson to continue their offensive line rebuild. Or new general manager Dave Gettleman could make a deal with former Panthers protege and current Bills GM Brandon Beane, who possesses two first-round picks and won’t be able to keep a straight face for very long while selling a McCarron-Nathan Peterman quarterback competition. Chance of Barkley: Let’s say 25 percent.
Chris Keane/Associated Press
Jets: They are wagering heavily on the second or third quarterback off the board being their top choice and franchise savior, which is very Jetsy. Chance of Barkley: 0 percent.
Browns: While this looks like a possible Barkley landing spot, the Hyde signing, coupled with reports that the Browns are trying to sign Duke Johnson Jr. to a long-term deal, indicate the Browns want the option of either upgrading their secondary here (Denzel Ward, Minkah Fitzpatrick) or fielding sweaty calls from the desperate Bills (if no Giants deal materializes) or Cardinals. Chance of Barkley: maybe 30 percent.
Broncos: John Elway could conceivably take Barkley here as part of his plan to convince us that he’s 100 percent satisfied with the newly signed Case Keenum. But it’s more likely Elway will wake up in a cold sweat, realize he just spent $18 million per year on a 30-year-old coming off a hot streak and try to move up to QB-block the Bills and Cardinals. Elway could also sit tight, select whichever quarterback drops to him and then retcon history to say that was his plan all along (see: the last two years of Broncos history, including the Keenum signing). Chance of Barkley: 10 percent or so.
The Colts and Buccaneers now select sixth and seventh. Both teams need a running back. Both teams also need an edge-rusher. Given the choice between Barkley (the leader of a deep draft class at an easy-to-fill position) and Bradley Chubb (another combine standout, but at a position of extreme scarcity in both free agency and the draft), it’s likely the Colts will either draft Chubb or extort some picks from the Bucs so they can move up one spot for Chubb.
So Barkley will probably be drafted seventh overall, though there are doomsday scenarios that could knock him out of the top 10 (Nelson, Fitzpatrick and others are still on the board; the Bears have zero need at running back with the eighth pick, etc.). Getting drafted seventh is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s halfway between Ezekiel Elliott’s fourth selection in 2016 and Gurley’s 10th overall selection in 2015. It’s out of the range that gives analytics hardliners coronaries, so Barkley and the team that selects him won’t be second-guessed the way they would be if he were drafted among the top five.
It’s just that Barkley, pound for pound, is the best player in this draft class. He belongs in the discussion for the first overall pick. Instead, he’s at the mercy of market forces that prompt teams to take extreme risks for quarterbacks and treat even athletically unique running backs like replaceable afterthoughts.
Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Barkley won’t do much at Tuesday’s pro day. He told the Morning Call‘s Mark Wogenrich on Saquon Barkley Day that he will catch some passes and run routes but let his 40 time and other combine results speak for themselves.
That makes sense. There’s little Barkley could do at a pro day to improve his standing in the quarterback-obsessed marketplace.
Unless Barkley threw some passes. Now if he could do that, it would probably stimulate some demand.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.