With the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the New York Giants selected Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. Since then, Barkley has been an integral part of the Giants offense; scoring 23 touchdowns through 30 career games.
While New York handed Barkley a hefty guaranteed rookie contract, one that still has two seasons remaining on it, star running backs are being handed new deals left and right.
As new head coach Joe Judge, sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones, and the rest of the Giants set out to establish a new winning culture in New York, they’ll be faced with an important question sooner rather than later: Should the franchise shell out historic money to keep Barkley in the backfield for years to come?
His current deal, a fully guaranteed $31.2 million contract, already gives the running back one the largest guaranteed contracts at his position, with just five players guaranteed larger sums. At the time, the rookie deal made Barkley the fourth-highest paid running back in the NFL. Today, in terms of average annual value, ten running backs currently make more money per season than Barkley:
- Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers: $16.0 million per year
- Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints: $15.0 million per year
- Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys: $15.0 million per year
- Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets: $13.1 million per year
- David Johnson, Houston Texans: $13.0 million per year
- Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings: $12.6 million per year
- Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans: $12.5 million per year
- Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals: $12.0 million per year
- Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals: $8.5 million per year
- Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos: $8.0 million per year
- Saquon Barkley, New York Giants: $7.8 million per year
The 23-year old is still on his rookie contract, so being the 11th-highest paid player at his position is still no small feat. Barkley has this season and next season before he can potentially become a free agent in 2022.
Should the Giants extend Barkley before then? Will New York have to top Christian McCaffery’s historic Carolina Panthers contract to keep Barkley on the team? Is Barkley deserving of being the highest-paid running back in the NFL?
Is Barkley the best running back in the league?
With McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara getting new, lucrative contracts, the running back market has been reset in the NFL. Barkley won’t have the benefit of resetting an out-of-date market, and will have to operate in the space that McCaffrey and Kamara carved out.
Can Barkley make the case to be paid more than these two superstar running backs? We’ll throw Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott; the league’s third-highest paid running back.
2019 Rushing Yards Per Game
- Christian McCaffrey: 86.7 yards
- Ezekiel Elliott: 84.8 yards
- Saquon Barkley: 77.2 yards
- Alvin Kamara: 56.9 yards
2019 Receiving Yards Per Game
- Christian McCaffrey: 62.8 yards
- Alvin Kamara: 38.1 yards
- Saquon Barkley: 33.7 yards
- Ezekiel Elliott: 26.3 yards
2019 Total Touchdowns
- Christian McCaffrey: 19 touchdowns (league-high)
- Ezekiel Elliott: 14 touchdowns
- Saquon Barkley: 8 touchdowns
- Alvin Kamara: 6 touchdowns
Overall, it’s clear to see McCaffrey is the most talented running back of this group, gaining more rushing and passing yards than his peers. It’s important to note all four running backs were 22-24 years old in 2019: Just entering their prime, and worthy of a massive payday for their production.
After McCaffrey, you could call Barkley the next-most talented player out of these four running backs. While Elliott beats Barkley in pure rushing, and Kamara catches more passes out of the backfield, Barkley is a well-rounded threat whenever he touches the football.
One knock on Barkley’s game is an early tendency to produce “dud” games, but hopefully that’s more of a testament to the Giants weak offensive line and not Barkley’s skills. In Week 1 of the 2020 season, Barkley gained just six yards on 15 carries.
There is also Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans to consider. In his age-25 season last year, he led the league in rushing yards (1,540,) rushing yards per game (102.7) and rushing touchdowns (16). It was a huge leap in production from 2018, and if Henry can keep it up, he’ll also be deserving of a handsome pay day.
How far should the Giants go to keep Barkley?
Based on what we’ve seen so far from Barkley, should he be the highest-paid running back in the NFL? Not quite, but his next contract should still yield the former Penn State player a massive contract.
If McCaffrey, the current highest-paid player at the position, makes $16.0 million per season, and Elliott and Kamara both make $15.0 million per year, Barkley should fall somewhere in-between the two thresholds. A contract with an average annual value of roughly $15.5 million would give Barkley the money he deserves while also acknowledging he’s just a step behind McCaffrey in the talent department.
Would that kind of contract be worthwhile for New York? Yes, but only if they go all-in on building their offense around Barkley.
Teams with running backs as their star player have historically come up short when playoff time rolls around. Just check the mantles of Barry Sanders, LaDanian Tomlinson, and Adrian Peterson: They’re filled with regular season accolades, but all devoid of Super Bowl victories.
The running back position also has a high rate of turnover: The league’s leading rusher could be a backup or even out of the league just a few seasons after claiming the regular season rushing crown. After an incredible 1,845-yard season in 2014, former Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray only had one more 1,000-yard season, and only three more seasons in total.
I’m not advocating that teams should never spend money on running backs: Just that it should be done in a smart way. If the Giants want to make Barkley the focal point of their offense, they’ll need to invest and re-invest in their offensive line for years to come. This could mean going cheap at the wide receiver position and missing out on some free agents in order to create a system where Barkley can thrive each year.
After the Odell Beckham Jr. debacle, the Giants franchise can repair relationships with both the players and fanbase by handling Barkley’s contract situation better.
Barkley would be an attractive option on the free agent market, but I don’t think any team would overpay him to make him the highest-paid running back in the league. If the Giants want him, he should be primed for an extension as early as this season. If they don’t, they can let him walk, allow another team to pay him, and possibly watch in agony as he succeeds somewhere else.
Barkley will play out the 2020-21 NFL season, and then he will hit contract negotiations very early in the offseason. The Giants will avoid any drama by inking him to a five-year, $77.5 million contract with an average annual value of $15.5 million per season.