Saquon Barkley will no longer haunt college football’s defensive coordinators. The Maxwell Award finalist is now the NFL’s problem.
Barkley — who announced his decision to leave Penn State and enter the draft on Sunday — is primed to take the league by storm, much like rookie Leonard Fournette has in Jacksonville.
Barkley, who accumulated 5,538 all-purpose yards in three years as a Nittany Lion, is held in high regard by experts and scouts alike. To help further break down Barkley’s NFL future, we caught up with ESPN NFL draft scout Steve Muench, who has worked for 10 years as a draft insider at “The Mothership,” for a special edition of “Five Questions.”
Q: We’ve seen some people put Saquon at No. 1 or 2, or at least in the top 5, on their big boards. Where does he stack up for you among this draft’s prospect pool, and what goes into that ranking?
A: He is our No. 1 running back, and he’s our No. 2 overall prospect. Josh Rosen, the UCLA quarterback, is the only guy ahead of him. Evaluating all these players, we watch mostly four tapes in the preseason, and it’s really the tape. Things will change when we go to the Combine when you see sizes and speeds. But we’ve watched 200 prospects at this point, and he’s come out as, who we think, is the second-best overall. It’s a bit complicated with positional value. Quarterbacks are a little more high prestige. Their positional value is higher there. So if you’re the No. 2 player on the board and you’re a running back, it says a lot about who you are as a player.
Q: What’s the one thing about Barkley’s game that stands out to you?
A: It’s a combination of the talent and the versatility. It’s those two things really. You can just look at the tape and think, ‘Man, that guy has wheels. He’s fast.’ But I think it’s that he’s so complete of a player. I’m interested to see how big he is at the Combine. I wonder if he’s at 220 (pounds) or closer to 215. It’s not going to be the end of the world either way, but you’re looking at a back with good size, great speed, really good feet, good vision, good instincts. I wouldn’t use him in the return game because I would be scared of using him there. He makes such an impact in other ways. But he could be a four-down player, helping out in the return game, running downs and passing downs.
Q: Do you have a guy you would compare him to? I’ve seen Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley floated out there before.
A: I like the Gurley comparison. Le’Veon Bell is another interesting one. When you’re talking about the Gurleys and the Bells of the NFL, you’re talking about elite NFL backs. That in and of itself is a compliment. If you watched Gurley a week ago, he caught a screen pass and took it 70 yards or whatever it was for a touchdown; that’s very much a Saquon Barkley ability. He’s the kind of guy who can turn that catch underneath into a game-breaking play. There are some aspects there that do compare well. It’s going to be interesting to see, if you’re nit-picking a little bit, he’s going to have to develop a bit in the passing game — a little bit as a route-runner, a little bit with his technique as a pass blocker. But those are all things that you’ll be able to iron out pretty quickly. You look at the big backs in the league with the Gurleys and Bells that can really contribute in the passing game, I think Barkley compares favorably coming out.
Q: What team or teams could really use him that are in a position to get him?
A: Cleveland at No. 4. I don’t think I’ll be giving you any earth-shattering news with that one. I think it’s the most obvious, and it just makes a lot of sense. Isaiah Crowell is going to be a free agent, and they’re a middle-of-the-road rushing game. They can bring him in, and he really gives you that boost. At No. 1, I think they need to target a quarterback at this point. So I don’t see it happening at No. 1. But at No. 4, it makes a great deal of sense. It’ll be interesting to see if the Giants or the Colts are going to also target quarterbacks and what happens there. It wouldn’t be out of the question for the Giants to get him at No. 2 because he’s such a talented player. If they think Eli Manning has another year, you’ve got Odell Beckham coming back, and you’re looking at a really explosive offense if you put Barkley in there. The Colts at No. 3, they have Frank Gore and Marlon Mack, who they like. It’s going to be a matter of, do they want to go after this kind of guy? I would be really surprised if he makes it out of the top 10. And I do think Cleveland at No. 4 makes all kinds of sense.
Q: Sometimes you see running backs hit a wall as rookies. Is there anything in his game that might cause concern in that regard?
A: No. He’s been very productive at the college level. Some guys might get concerned about touches and all that. He’s coming out a year early, which I think is the right move for him obviously. He’s going to be paid a lot of money, and he’s talented enough to succeed at that level. Look at Alvin Kamara and what he’s done with the Saints, how they’ve managed touches and how they’ve used him. It will all be about how a team uses him. It’s a grind for all these guys when you go through this process. College season ends ... now you’re going to prepare for the biggest track meet in your life, which is the Combine. Preparing for the Combine isn’t the same as preparing for the season. While all these other veterans are resting and getting ready for a 16-game season, these guys are going through this grind in the offseason and then go through that 17-week season and then maybe the playoffs. It is a haul for them, so they can wear down. If that happens to him, I think it would be the team overusing him or not managing his touches well. Otherwise, I think he’ll be OK.