When the Giants’ coaches and front office close their eyes and imagine what the offense will look like as it takes the field on Sept. 9 for the opener against the Jaguars, they see a lot of things. They see a rejuvenated 37-year-old Eli Manning beginning his 15th season. They see their new offensive line punishing defenders. They see a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. streaking down the field, Sterling Shepard shaking loose in the slot and Evan Engram running down the seam.
And they see a running back.
The problem, as of right now, is they don’t know who it is. It’s unlikely that the one they envision is on the current roster. They have veteran Jonathan Stewart and returning players Wayne Gallman and Paul Perkins, all of whom likely will carry a bit of the workload for them during the upcoming season. But that dynamic back who can change games with one handoff and alter defensive schemes to help free up the receivers? He’s just not there.
That’s just one of the arguments one can make for selecting Penn State’s Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick in this week’s draft. He’d complete the vision. General manager Dave Gettleman said he wanted to build the roster in free agency and then fill in the gaps in the draft. Well, running back remains a gap.
But what if the Giants don’t select Barkley? What if the Browns take him first overall or the Giants trade back to acquire more picks or Gettleman goes against everything he has said pertaining to this draft and decides that running backs are not worth No. 2 picks because of durability and value considerations? What then?
There may be plenty of options. In fact, despite the prolific starts to the careers of Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette as high first-round picks, some of the most franchise-altering running backs have come in later rounds. Alvin Kamara of the Saints and Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs were third-round picks a year ago who “literally changed the way their offenses were viewed,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said this past week.
“This year,” Mayock said of the running backs class, “it’s just as deep.”
Barkley is the headliner, and most figure LSU’s Darius Guise also will be a first-round pick. But when the Giants draft at 34 at the top of the second round, if they don’t already have Barkley, they could have a selection of promising backs from which to choose.
Mayock said Sony Michel of Georgia is “a first-round talent” but concerns about a knee injury he suffered two years ago could push him to the second round. Ronald Jones II of USC, Mayock said, is a good “change of pace” back. Rashaad Penny of San Diego State offers good tailback skills and is a dynamic kick returner. And Georgia’s Nick Chubb likely will be available.
“You could make a case for all four of those guys top of the second round, all of whom will bring value to a team,” Mayock said.
Of course, “value” is a big buzz word when it comes to running backs. There are many who believe that the Giants should not use their No. 2 pick on the position (although general manager Dave Gettleman called the devaluation of running backs “a myth” this past week). The key to finding value, Mayock said, is to avoid position biases.
“Let’s forget about labeling offensive skill position players for a second,” Mayock said. “Coaches are saying: ‘Forget what you call them. They’re not wide receivers, they’re not running backs or tight ends. Find me a dynamic offensive player and I’ll figure out how to use him.’ That’s what we’ve seen at the running back position the last few years.”
It’s what the Panthers saw a year ago when they selected Christian McCaffrey and Gettleman (then Carolina’s GM) called the pick “a no-brainer.”
And, more than likely, when he closes his eyes and envisions the 2018 Giants’ offense, it’s what he sees in the backfield.
BACKS BESIDES BARKLEY
A look at other running backs in this year’s draft who can still make a major impact on teams . . . and maybe the Giants.
A tough, north-south runner who can also make plays catching the ball . . . Started just two games as a senior splitting time in the backfield but amassed 1,227 yards on 156 carries with 16 rushing TDs . . . Won Georgia’s Offensive MVP and the Charley Trippi Most Versatile Player Award as a sophomore . . . Was team captain as a junior and won Offensive MVP award in the Liberty Bowl.
RONALD JONES II
Good speed and quickness make him an elusive ballcarrier . . . A third-team AP All-America and first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2017, finishing with 1,550 rushing yards and 19 rushing TDs on 261 carries . . . More of a traditional tailback, he caught just 14 passes . . . Was a member of the USC track team in the spring of 2016.
San Diego State
Makes tacklers miss and runs hard on every touch . . . The nation’s leading rusher with 2,248 yards and 23 TDs on 289 carries . . . A versatile player who can catch passes from the backfield and returns kicks as well; he had two kickoff returns and a punt return for a TD.
Second on Georgia’s all-time rushing list . . . In 2017 he split time in the backfield with Michel and totaled 1,345 rushing yards with 15 TDs . . . A knee injury in 2015 slowed him down in 2016, but he still finished the year with 1,130 yards and 8 TDs on 224 carries . . . Only had four receptions in 2017.