Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is a Heisman candidate and potential top overall pick, but can he put up big numbers against the Michigan defense?
In an NFL season full of surprises, one of the biggest storylines is the success of 2017’s rookie running back class. Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette (fourth overall) and Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt (third round) have already found themselves as major contributors for their respective teams. In addition, Dalvin Cook (before injury), Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Tarik Cohen have also managed to establish themselves as key components to their club’s offensive gameplan.
With the success of these running backs, it’s hard to believe that the 2017 draft class may very well be outmatched by its successor. And no running back from the 2018 class has earned more praise or hype than Penn State junior Saquon Barkley.
Barkley and the No. 2 Nittany Lions will face a tough test at home this weekend against Jim Harbaugh’s No. 19 Michigan Wolverines and their eighth-ranked scoring defense, a game that will afford Barkley another chance to impress scouts on the national stage. What makes Saquon Barkley such a special NFL prospect? Let’s go to the tape to find out.
Elite athletic ability
You don’t have to watch Saquon Barkley for very long to figure out why some are pegging him as the potential top overall pick next April. With 649 yards and six touchdowns on their ground this year for the Nittany Lions, he’s already well on his way to his third consecutive 1,000-yard season.
What separates Barkley from his peers in the 2018 class is his freakish athleticism and strength. Here are some of the jaw-dropping numbers that Barkley put up in summer workouts for Penn State:
Bench press: 455 pounds
Squat: 650 pounds
40-yard Dash: 4.33 seconds
Broad jump: 10-feet, 10-inch
Those numbers are all impressive on an individual basis but even more so when it’s all the marks of one player. Barkley’s lower body strength, as evidenced by his absurd 650-pound squat max, is part of what makes him such a tough runner to bring down, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he will end up as one of the stars of the Combine come next February.
Vision, burst, agility
One of the things that jumps out when watching Barkley play is his agility and ability to cut on a dime. He displays tremendous hip flexibility and a low center of gravity that helps him extend plays you didn’t know could even exist.
Barkley’s outstanding hip flexibility and sideline awareness allow him to evade three Iowa defenders, which is no easy feat for a player listed at 5-foot-11 and 228 pounds. His lower body strength gives him the ability to plant and change direction with ease, which was also on display during his outstanding Rose Bowl performance last season against USC.
Barkley also displays outstanding awareness and vision as a runner and does a great job at setting up a defender to take them out of a position or angle before making his cuts. He won’t typically overpower or break tackles of defenders who square him up, but his quickness gives him the ability to sometimes force opposing players into attempting an unsuccessful arm tackle. Once he’s made his move, he’s quickly back at top speed and will often soon find himself in one-on-one situations with linebackers and defensive backs, which I can only imagine haunts those defenders for the rest of their lives.
Valuable in the passing game
Being a great runner is just one aspect of playing running back in the NFL, but typically the backs that have the most success early on are the ones that can also provide value in the passing game as a blocker and receiver. Barkley is a player who checks both of those boxes.
One of my favorite things about Barkley on tape is his awareness as a pass blocker, mainly when things get crowded in the interior of the line. Here, Barkley diagnoses and picks up the stunt from Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and executes a perfect cut block.
Barkley’s tremendous lower body strength means he’s unlikely to be dominated at the point of attack very often, even by opposing defensive linemen that have a significant size advantage. He does a good job at anchoring himself on contact, and is able to hold his own against opposing pass rushers to buy his quarterback more time in the pocket.
As if his pass blocking wasn’t impressive enough, Barkley also happens to be pretty darn good as a receiver.
Finding holes in Barkley’s game is just about one of the hardest things you’ll do when evaluating players from the 2018 class. Typically, with explosive players like Barkley, any weaknesses are mitigated by the fact that their playmaking ability greatly outweighs them.
If there’s one thing that can be an issue with Barkley, it’s his tendency to want to dance in the backfield too much and bounce runs to the outside when they don’t need to be taken there.
In the above run, Barkley abandons a 1-on-1 matchup with a defender to go back into traffic on the interior. These are the plays in the NFL that can quickly result in a tackle for loss, so knowing when to dance and when to get upfield will be key for him to limit negative yardage runs at the next level.
Also, Barkley can sometimes misread pass protections on edge blitzes, but he’s typically able to hold his own and mirror pass rushers when matched up 1-on-1.
Tough matchup with Wolverines’ defensive line
Jim Harbaugh’s 19th-ranked Wolverines currently sport the eighth-ranked scoring defense in the country and stand to have one of the best chances to stop Barkley’s hot streak because of their outstanding defensive line play. Senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst and sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary figure to be in the Nittany Lions backfield plenty on Saturday, and they’ll be faced with the daunting task of stopping Barkley before he gets going. The Wolverines held Barkley to just 59 yards rushing and 3.9 yards per carry in last season’s 49-10 dismantling of Penn State and will need to wreak havoc in the backfield early and set the edge to have a chance at a similar result.
It’s pretty apparent why Barkley is the crown jewel of this year’s running back class, but we’ll have to wait until April to see whether he becomes the first running back since fellow Penn State alum Ki-Jana Carter (Cincinnati Bengals) to be taken first overall.