INDIANAPOLIS -- There is no better illustration of the NFL’s recent devaluation of running backs than this: After five were drafted No. 1 overall during a 10-year period from 1977-86, only one has been taken with the top pick ever since. The last time it happened was 1995, when Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter was the first player selected.
Are we about to see another Penn State star become the first running back in more than two decades to go first overall?
Say hello to Saquon Barkley, who has been the star of this week’s NFL Combine with the kind of individual performances that not only have been good but historically good.
More bench presses (29) than future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Joe Thomas (28).
A faster 40-yard dash (4.40) than wide receiver/returner Devin Hester (4.43).
A higher vertical leap (41 inches) than Julio Jones (38 ½).
The only other player in Combine history with at least 25 bench press reps and a 40-inch vertical leap was defensive end Myles Garrett, who went No. 1 overall to the Browns last year.
It’s the kind of eye-popping performance that could convince the Browns — or another team willing to trade with Cleveland to obtain the first choice — to make Barkley the No. 1 pick in a league that has gravitated toward the pass since the run-centric days of Earl Campbell, George Rogers, Billy Sims and a handful of other No. 1 overall picks of the 1980s.
At the very least, Barkley has injected himself into the tippy-top of the draft and could change the plans of many teams and the slotting of several players around him. If he goes first overall to the Browns, the Giants will have their pick of top-rated quarterbacks Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. And if the Browns take a quarterback instead, the Giants could decide that Barkley is the kind of generational talent who is simply too good to pass up, even though they will need an heir apparent to Eli Manning at some point.
Barkley will spend the coming weeks working out individually for several teams — including the Giants and Jets, who have the sixth overall pick — and where he will end up remains uncertain. He won’t be preoccupied with how high he will go or who will take him, though.
“Something I learned at Penn State was that you can only control what you can control,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you get focused on that stuff, you take away from yourself.”
Going first overall?
“That would be awesome,” he said. “Any team that wants to draft me and bless me with the opportunity to play for their franchise is a blessing. You grow up as a little kid dreaming of playing in the NFL. If it’s the Browns, if it’s the Giants or whoever, I’m gonna come in with my head low and ready to work.”
Has Barkley convinced the Giants that he supersedes the team’s need at quarterback? They’re not saying, nor will they offer a final answer until they’re on the clock in next month’s draft. But general manager Dave Gettleman hasn’t shied away from taking a running back in the top 10, as evidenced by his choice of Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey at No. 8 for Carolina last year. The one caveat there: Unlike the Giants, who have a 37-year-old quarterback on the back end of his career, the Panthers already had Cam Newton, now 28, who is in his NFL prime.
That debate could sway the Giants to go quarterback, but Barkley has surely created a scenario that could result in Gettleman making the decision to take a player he might consider Hall of Fame-worthy.
The Jets might not be in position to take Barkley, and even if they find a way to sign free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins, it might take too much draft capital to move up high enough to get Barkley and provide the kind of one-two infusion of talent for their offense. Barkley’s Combine performance only enhances his draft stature, and he could be off the board well before the Jets pick — meaning the Bronx native wouldn’t live out his boyhood dream of playing for them.
But while Barkley has created the kind of Combine buzz that inevitably will boost his draft-day stock, keep this in mind: He may have all the talent teams are looking for in a running back, but he had some games last season that left something to be desired. He rushed for 35 yards on 14 carries against woeful Rutgers, had 44 yards on 21 carries against Ohio State and was held to 56 yards on 20 carries against Indiana.
There were monster games against Nebraska (158 yards and three touchdowns), Iowa (211 yards and one touchdown) and Washington (137 yards and two TDs), but we’re not talking Jim Brown here. At least not yet.
So for all the buzz he has created in what essentially is a track meet for NFL prospects, game-day tape needs to be taken into consideration. And like every other prospect, there are warts that merit further study.
But make no mistake: In a league in which the running game often has become an afterthought, Barkley is making a case for a back-to-the-future approach.
Barkley’s Combine numbers
4.40 40-yard dash
29 bench-press reps (225 pounds)
41.0 vertical jump (inches)