The decision was a no-brainer for Dave Gettleman almost from the moment he began scouting the 2018 NFL Draft: Saquon Barkley was his guy at No. 2 overall.
Never mind that Eli Manning was in the twilight of his career and that the draft was deep at quarterback, featuring Baker Mayfield (who went with the first pick), Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. Gettleman was all-in on Barkley — in part because he believed Manning had more productive years left but mostly because Barkley simply was too good to pass up.
"Saquon’s very gifted and talented," Gettleman said after taking the Penn State running back. "He’s one of those guys my mother could have scouted. She could have figured it out."
Alas, things aren’t so simple with Barkley these days.
He dazzled the Giants in his first season, playing all 16 games, rushing for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns, and catching 91 passes for 721 yards and four touchdowns. It couldn’t have been a better start.
But things have not been the same since then. He missed three games the next year with a sprained ankle and was less impactful, rushing for 1,003 yards with only six rushing touchdowns and two receiving TDs. Then he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 last season and hobbled off the field with a sprained ankle in Sunday’s 44-20 loss to Dallas.
That’s three injuries in three years for a running back who is entering an important part of his career in terms of his contract status. The Giants control his rights through the 2022 season, when he’s guaranteed $7.2 million in salary. After that, he’ll be a free agent unless the Giants work out an extension.
Therein lies the difficult part.
If Barkley had been dominant last year, he might have done what Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott did before his fourth NFL season — demand a new contract. Elliott held out until four days before the 2019 regular-season opener and received a six-year extension worth $90 million that extends through the 2026 season. The deal included $50 million in guaranteed money.
But Elliott had all the leverage then; he’d led the league in rushing in two of his first three seasons. Barkley had none, having to rehab from his knee injury before making it back for the start of this season. The Giants did as expected in exercising a fifth-year option, but even then, there is no guarantee he won’t want a new deal before the current one is up.
But do the Giants make that huge an investment in a player who has been far more injury-prone than expected? And does Barkley himself force the team to make a decision before the 2022 season, lest he demand an extension, or even a trade, if the Giants are unwilling to meet his demands?
These questions might be somewhat premature, given that we’re only five weeks into the season. Then again, the Giants are 1-4 and seem to be going nowhere, and Barkley is back in the trainer’s room as he deals with his latest injury. And questions continue to swirl about whether he can be a viable player for a team that again is staggering.
Barkley’s ankle swelled badly in the minutes after he accidentally stepped on Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewis’ foot. Coach Joe Judge expressed optimism that the injury might not be as severe as it looked, but the fact that Barkley couldn’t finish Sunday’s game was another reminder that his long-term future with the team might be more problematic than first thought.
Do the Giants want Barkley? Of course they do. And of course they should. You always want elite talent.
But in a sport in which the salary cap means you have finite resources to invest, especially in star players, tough decisions have to be made. And you don’t always get to keep your best players if it means taking away money that might go toward other important positions.
If Barkley misses more time with this latest injury, and if the team continues to sputter in what appears to be another lost season, the prospect of a second contract for him will diminish greatly.
What once was a no-brainer for Gettleman has turned into a head-scratcher for an organization hoping that Barkley someday would be fitted with a Hall of Fame gold jacket.