With the second pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the New York Giants selected one of the most talented running backs the league has ever seen in Saquon Barkley. Whether you agree that he was the right pick at that spot or not, you can’t deny how sensational Barkley was in his rookie season.
In 16 games, he was able to amass over 2,000 all-purpose yards on more than 350 touches. His final stat line led to him finishing the season as the #2 scoring fantasy running back with 340.3 half-PPR points behind only Todd Gurley.
All of Barkley’s rookie season hype has fantasy players all around drooling to take him with the first overall pick in this years draft, and rightfully so. I mean we did just see one of the most fantastic rookie seasons ever put together by a running back, why wouldn’t you be excited to select arguably the most talented running back in the NFL?
Well, as a wise man once said, reality is often disappointing.
I love Barkley’s talent and don’t have a problem with saying he is the most skilled running back in the NFL, but I will NOT be selecting him with the first pick in any of my leagues this year.
Every year there is typically a consensus between experts and avid fantasy football players of who the top-five running backs are. Last year, it was some mixture of Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley. While it is nice to imagine that all of those players will return value relative to their average draft position, it is actually more likely that they will do the opposite for you.
Over the past three seasons (2016-2018) I took the ADP’s of the top five running backs before the season and compared them to where they finished in overall scoring. From this sample size, only 7/15 running backs selected in the top five actually finished the season there. Now, I know that there are injuries, suspensions, and whatever Le’Veon Bell’s situation was last year but the bottom line is this. Over 50% of the time, the running back you select in the top five is not going to finish the season there.
Knowing this, you have to look into what fuels an RB1 season, meaning they finished in the top-10 in fantasy points for that year.
One of the easiest ways to become an RB1 is to play on an offense that is in the top 50% in scoring (meaning they finished the season 1st-16th in team points per game). Over the past three seasons, 24 out of the 30 (80%) RB1’s have come from offenses that are in the top half of team points per game. On the contrary, this also means that only 20% of RB1’s have come from bottom 16 scoring teams. It is also worth noting that of the six RB1’s that have been on bottom 16 scoring offenses, none have finished higher than 5th in total points.
You may be wondering at this point, “How does that have anything to do with Saquon?” Well, I will tell you why.
The New York Giants just barely cracked the top 16 in points per game in 2018, finishing 16th overall. Now, imagine that same Giants team this year, but you replaced Odell Beckham Jr. with Golden Tate. Add on that Eli Manning has grown one year older (and worse) and his replacement, Daniel Jones (not very good), could end up taking over by mid-season. I don’t know about you, but all of that commotion doesn’t bode very well for a top-16 scoring offense in 2019. Sure, you could argue that Odell Beckham Jr. wasn’t the entire offense but he did make it easier for his teammates, especially Eli Manning.
This offense could legitimately be bottom five in the league, but let’s just put it conservatively and say they fall to the 22nd highest scoring offense in 2019. Over the last three years, only 3/30 RB1’s have been a part of offenses that rank 22nd or lower in points per game:
David Johnson finished as RB10 on the 32nd ranked offense in 2018, Jordan Howard finished as the RB10 on the 29th ranked offense in 2016, and LeSean McCoy finished as the RB7 on the 27th ranked offense in 2017.
Like I said, I love Saquon’s talent but recent history tells us that if the Giants are as bad an offense as they should be in 2019, there is just a 10% chance Barkley finishes as an RB1.
Now, being on a top scoring offense isn’t the only way to become an RB1, there is also this thing I like to call the 300 touch rule. It means that if you are a running back that can secure 300 or more touches in a single season, the odds of you finishing as an RB1 are astronomical. Between 2016 and 2018, there were 18 running backs who saw a workload of 300 or more touches. All besides two finished in the top 10 in overall points. Those two were Todd Gurley in 2016 with 321 touches and Frank Gore in 2016 with 301 total touches.
This statistic bodes well for Barkley considering he is the focal point of that offense and will likely see at least 300 touches in 2019. However, only 4/18 (22%) of those aforementioned running backs were on bottom-half scoring teams. They were Todd Gurley in 2016, David Johnson in 2018, LeSean McCoy in 2017 and Ezekiel Elliott in 2018. None of those four running backs were higher than fifth overall in scoring. It is safe to say that all of those guys I just mentioned are sensational talents, but even their talent couldn’t overcome their terrible offenses.
One of the names on that list above was in an oddly similar situation as Saquon is in 2019, and that is Todd Gurley. Both were extremely high draft picks coming out of college and are regarded as two of the most talented running backs the NFL has ever seen.
Todd Gurley put up an extremely well rounded rookie season in 2015, putting him at seventh overall in total scoring with 198.1 fantasy points. This fantastic season led to many fantasy owners eager to take him as the first running back off the board the following season, and his ADP supports that. He was taken on average three whole spots in front of the next drafted running back, David Johnson, and was the consensus #2 overall pick behind Antonio Brown. Sure, he had an amazing rookie year but fantasy owners neglected to analyze his situation beforehand. He managed to be the seventh overall running back in 2015 despite playing on the 29th ranked offense, however they didn’t get any better the next year. The Saint Louis Rams in 2016 ended up being the lowest scoring team in the league, and Gurley’s fantasy stock took a massive hit as a result. Despite touching the ball 321 times, he finished as the RB17 in 2016 and likely ruined his owners chances of winning their league.
Saquon Barkley put together a historic first season in the NFL last year, but his offense undoubtedly got worse this year, a la Todd Gurley from 2015-2016. Gurley’s talent didn’t go away in 2016, but his talent wasn’t enough to overcome the terrible situation he was put in. I am not saying that the Giants will be the lowest scoring team in 2019, and I am not saying that Jeff Fisher and Pat Shurmur are on the same level of offensive genius but my point is sometimes talent isn’t enough to push you over the hump. Even with a massive workload, it is a feasible outcome that Barkley could finish outside of the top-10 running backs this year solely based on his situation.
I know I am poking holes here, but we even witnessed some games in 2018 where Barkley’s generational talent couldn’t overcome his situation. Despite outstanding end of season numbers, Saquon had seven games where he averaged less than four yards per carry and seven games where he totaled under 60 rushing yards. Those are both thresholds that you would like to see your RB1 smash game in and game out, but a good amount of the time Saquon was unable to do so.
On top of that, generally speaking you want to see your RB1 carry the ball at least 15 times per game if you plan on them getting to 300 total touches on the season (240 carries over a 16 game season). However, there were eight games in 2018 where Barkley saw less than 15 rush attempts. Obviously he was able to make up for the low attempts most of the time by breaking long runs, but on a bad offense it’s tough to bank on less than 15 carries per game producing RB1 numbers every week.
I am not saying that this will be the case in 2019, but it is definitely something worth noting when you are projecting what he and this offense can accomplish over the course of a 16 game season.
With all of this being said, let’s talk about where I personally rank Saquon Barkley in 2019.
While I just brought out all of these statistics that support how he might not be a top-five running back in 2019, I still have him ranked in there at #4. I know, it sounds very hypocritical of me to do so but at the end of the day, it’s Saquon Barkley. I don’t know if he will necessarily finish fourth overall, but I know that he should get a massive workload that will project him into the top tier of RB’s.
If you asked me where I think Barkley finishes in 2019, I would say around RB6-8 overall, the only reason he is ranked as my fourth overall running back is because right now it is hard to project which of the later RB’s are going to finish higher than him, and high floors are far more important than high upside in the first few rounds. You can’t win your draft in the first few rounds, but you can definitely lose it.
Barkley still possesses the potential top-5 upside even in a bad offense because he is just that good. However, I think that the chances of him finishing there this season are relatively low. As I outlined throughout this article there is so much that transpires throughout a football season that can make or break certain players. As of right now, the odds are stacked against Barkley.
With the first pick in any draft, you want to pick the player who presents the highest floor and upside for your team. You are realistically aiming to select the player that is going to finish the highest in scoring overall for that year with that pick, and I would bet a lot of money saying that player won’t be named Saquon Barkley. If you don’t nail the first overall pick, the chances of your team succeeding throughout the year have already dropped off tremendously. For example, even though David Johnson finished top-10 overall last year, you likely lost your league if you took him with the first overall pick because of his weekly volatility.
If you are in a 10-man league then there will be 19 players off the board by the time you get to make your second pick. Sure, there are good players at the end of the second round, but they aren’t going to present nearly the same value as your first overall pick will.
I think he is a relatively safe bet to finish top 10 overall this season with the workload I project but you should not bet on Saquon Barkley to repeat his rookie season performance in 2019.
Do NOT take Saquon first overall.