Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is a rare talent in a variety of ways. In fact, that is an understatement and those words sell him short as a player. Watching the true junior on film is truly thrilling because he brings me to the edge of my seat on a pretty regular basis.
Penn State has the runner listed at 5’11” and 223 pounds. That is fantastic size for the position and there are no questions about his ability to handle a full workload in the NFL. Barkley looks very thick through his thighs and in his lower half, and he runs with tremendous power through contact.
Barkley also has a very nice blend of athletic traits. Barkley has good speed and I think he has rare short-area quickness. Barkley really takes it to the next level with his lateral agility and ability to accelerate out of cuts. He has the skills to make very talented athletes look silly trying to tackle him.
Barkley can stop himself instantly and he makes defenders miss by sinking his hips which show great hip flexibility and agility. He accelerates out of those cuts with ease and leaves defenders flailing away in the dust. We have all seen the run against USC in the Rose Bowl last year.
Anyone looking at Barkley at this point has him ranked very high for understandable reasons and I see them too. However, watching him play brings up questions that I need to answer and they are tough ones. Barkley is not a perfect prospect and he has work to do in 2017 to further bolster his draft position.
These questions stem from the Penn State offensive scheme, and what it does specifically for Barkley to make him look better than he might be. Sometimes in football, coaches do not put their players in the best position to be successful. The Penn State staff is doing it the right way with Barkley, but that might be hiding some of his flaws as a player. It is very easy to say that coaches need to do a better job with players and what they ask them to do so they can optimize the things they do well, but that is much easier said than done. The offensive game plan at Penn State is perfect for Barkley and it puts him in a position to be successful on a fairly consistent basis.
Looking at the Penn State offense, it is easy to see it is built around spreading the field and running zone-read where quarterback Trace McSorley and Barkley form a potent tandem. The zone-read is all about the quarterback reading the defensive end and using his aggression, or lack of aggression, against him.
In fact, there are times when the defense looks to be more focused on stopping McSorley as a runner, leaving Barkley as an afterthought. When the defense bites hard on McSorley at the mesh point, and Barkley gets the ball, he ultimately gets put into a scenario where every running back wants to be, and that’s isolated against a single defender. Every running back should prosper here, and Barkley certainly does too.
Also, the Nittany Lions spread the field so much in 2016 with offensive weapons that defenders had to keep in check. Tight end Mike Gesicki ran a lot of routes to clear out space and wide receiver Chris Godwin challenged defenses vertically, and this led to defenses having fewer defenders in the box to stop the run. More room for Barkley to run, and again, more of him deployed where he can be his best.
I have wondered aloud about Barkley’s ability to perform magically amidst chaos, and we can all see his ability to make magic happen out of nothing. Thriving in chaos against college defenses is something Barkley does well, but this will change in the NFL and he’ll have to function in the confines and structure of an NFL offense.
Regardless of what Penn State’s offense does for Barkley, the job of a scout is to determine how the traits of a player translate at the next level. Clearly, the offense Barkley joins at the NFL will be very different from what he’s playing in right now, and it is entirely fair to say it won’t be nearly as friendly as the offense he is in right now. That is worth considering when watching him tear up college defenses.
One thing that does stand out as an area he can really improve is in pass protection. He needs refinement and technical improvement to become reliable on third down as a pass protector, although he is a fantastic route runner and should be utilized as a weapon catching passes out of the backfield. Still, he will need to improve in this area of the game.
However, some of Barkley’s traits are off the charts and his movement skills are rare for a bigger running back. He is lightning quick, can stop and make a defender miss and accelerate to stop speed in a flash and run away from the defense and is big enough to run his feet through contact to deliver a blow at the end of a play, and he can clearly create for himself. Those are traits that translate at the next level.
Having said all that, I don’t want it to come across as a shot across the bow at Barkley and his abilities as a running back. He’s a very good running back and he has a strong chance to be RB1 in the 2018 NFL Draft. There is work to do and I’ve laid out my questions about his game, and he can answer some of them with his play this season.
In a perfect world, there are things that I’d like to see from Barkley in his junior season. I’d like to see him allow blocks to get set up and I’d like to see his vision on display more than it was in 2016. I’d really like to see him excel in the structure of an offense that works more like the kind of offense he’ll play in as an NFL running back, and it will be important for him to refine his technique in pass protection.
If Barkley can answer some of these questions, he should challenge to be the first running back selected in the 2018 NFL draft and he could get drafted early in Round 1.