This is going to sound crazy, because I’ve seen first-hand what Saquon Barkley can do.
Every inch of his college highlight tape from Penn State. Live.
Leaping over that safety from Buffalo in 2015.
The dazzling run where he went right, reversed field, juked three USC defenders, then scored on a dead sprint up the left sideline in the Rose Bowl.
The touchdown catch in the Big Ten Championship Game in 2016 on which he made Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt, a future first-round draft pick, look like he was standing still.
The run against Iowa last season where he was penned in by the left sideline and still somehow made several defenders miss on the way to a big gain.
The kickoff return against Ohio State.
The one-handed catch against Indiana.
The touchdown pass against the Hoosiers.
The game-opening touchdown run against Michigan.
The 92-yard sprint for the score in the Fiesta Bowl.
Those are just the ones you’re going to be seeing over and over and over again before the 2018 NFL draft kicks off April 26 from Dallas.
He’s going to be one of the top five picks in that draft for reasons like that, and most who follow the NFL draft for a living will unabashedly say that if talent were the only factor general managers consider, Barkley would probably go down as the best pure prospect available to teams this year.
All that said, I still think he’s probably a little bit underrated.
Kiper has him going to Giants: In his latest mock draft released this week, ESPN’s longtime draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. predicted Barkley would be selected second overall by his hometown New York Giants, which would be a steal for the G-Men, who need a dynamic running back who could take some of the pressure off of quarterback Eli Manning and attention away from star receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
If Kiper is right, and the Giants select Barkley second overall, he’d be the highest-picked running back since the New Orleans Saints took Reggie Bush second in 2006.
But he’d still be underrated, because the hapless Cleveland Browns — proud owners of the first and fourth picks in the upcoming selection meeting — should take him first.
“Yeah, they could,” Kiper assured during a conference call Wednesday afternoon. “If they have a couple of quarterbacks they have a similar grade on, say two or three of the top four quarterbacks, they can say, ‘Hey, we’ll get Barkley and get one of those guys at four.’ They could go that route.”
Reaching for a QB: They should, because no offense to the likes of Wyoming’s Josh Allen or USC’s Sam Darnold or Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield or any quarterback the Browns might be targeting to replace the quarterback of the future they drafted last season (Notre Dame product DeShone Kizer), quarterback prospects like them come around all the time.
You don’t often see a guy like Barkley, the type of player Kiper called an immediate positive as a runner, as a receiver, as a blocker. A three-down back who can change just about any offense in the NFL right now.
But the NFL is a funny business, especially at draft time, when teams would rather reach for a quarterback prospect than take a running back who is nearly a sure bet. Even at a time when the value of an elite running back seems to be rising.
Running backs not highly valued: In the eight drafts after the Saints took Bush, only four running backs were selected in the top 10: Adrian Peterson in 2007, Darren McFadden in 2008, CJ Spiller in 2010 and Trent Richardson in 2012.
The bottom line is, only Peterson had a first-round impact among those players, which led many around the game to question the real value of a running back. After all, looking back at the 2008 draft, for instance, you might rather have Jonathan Stewart, who was the 13th overall pick, and you’d definitely want Chris Johnson (24th), Matt Forte (44th) and Jamaal Charles (73rd) over McFadden.
Even as big a star as Bush was, would you call him as good a back as the last two running backs taken in the 2006 first round: DeAngelo Williams and Joseph Addai?
But as the perception that a running back is a rather interchangeable part — the best ones only average about half a yard more per carry than an OK one, really — lives on, the reality of the situation is that top-level backs are turning NFL teams around.
Recent top-10 running backs have excelled: The last three years, four running backs were selected among the top 10 picks: The Rams took Todd Gurley 10th in 2015, the Cowboys grabbed Ezekiel Elliott fourth in 2016, and last year, the Jaguars took Leonard Fournette with the fourth pick before the Carolina Panthers scooped up Christian McCaffrey eighth.
They’ve all starred. They’ve all played in a playoff game. They’ve all helped their respective teams transform their offenses, and with the exception of McCaffrey, they’ve all done it for teams that didn’t have superstar quarterbacks running the show.
Now, you have a team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, considering a long-term, big-money contract for their star running back, LeVeon Bell, who wants a $15 million-per-year contract and might be good enough to get it somewhere. That would be $7 million more annually than any other running back in the league is making, and the Steelers — with one of the great passing offenses in the league — are hopeful they will be able to make that money work, even with myriad holes on the defense that need to be filled.
Barkley a difference-maker: That’s how valuable running backs are, and once he’s done at the NFL Combine next week, Barkley might enter the league as its most physically gifted player at the position.
Kiper thinks Barkley will probably go second, because he’s not a quarterback.
He should go first, because he’s the player who is going to make the biggest difference between a bad 2017 team and one that will have a chance in 2018 and beyond.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.