EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley had just limped off the field in Week 5, his left ankle the size of a beach ball before he plopped on the end of the bench at AT&T Stadium. The disgust from stepping on the foot of Dallas Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewis was oozing from every pore.
Barkley was pounding his thigh pads with his fists as if he was trying to punch a hole in them. The realization the injury would mean more time on the sideline while his teammates tried to fight out of an early season hole was too frustrating to hold in.
Barkley had a high ankle sprain that marred his 2019 season and a torn ACL in his right knee that ended his 2020 season in Week 2. He had to know this latest injury would further affect his ability to land a second contract.
“What would go through your guys’ minds if you just rehabbed for 10 or 11 months to get back on the field and then you got hurt by rolling your ankle by stepping on someone else’s foot?” Barkley said several days after the game. “You’re going to be frustrated. You’re going to be exhausted. You’re human. I’m human.”
Fast-forward six weeks and the Giants (3-6) are a long shot to make the playoffs and Barkley has missed 18 of the past 23 games heading into Monday night’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Barkley is expected to play against the Bucs (6-4), but his injuries have complicated the answer to a looming question facing the organization: Should they re-sign him to a long-term extension?
The answer once seemed a formality. The 2018 season — when he finished with 2,028 yards from scrimmage, 15 touchdowns and was named Offensive Rookie of the Year — suggested greatness. Since his promising debut he has totaled 1,860 yards from scrimmage over parts of three injury-riddled seasons.
“All the things that I want to attain are still out there for me to attain. I live by that,” Barkley said. “There are going to be setbacks. There is going to be adversity, not just as a football player but in anything you do in life.
“Just because you have a little adversity or setbacks doesn’t mean you have to start listening to all the noise. … Keep working. Have faith, have belief that all the hard work you’ve put in is going to come to life.”
Injuries leave Giants in a predicament
Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft out of Penn State, is in the fourth year of his rookie deal making $4.7 million. The team picked up the fifth-year option in his contract back in April, guaranteeing him $7.2 million for 2022. That remains a reasonable number for a running back of his ability, even with his injury history.
Comparing Barkley to the eight running backs with the highest average annual value (AAV) in their contracts (all average at least $12 million), he ranks fifth in scrimmage yards per game (108.0) and yards per touch (5.4) for his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The problem for Barkley is he has played the lowest percentage of his team’s games among that bunch at 63% (36 of a possible 57) and has averaged the second-fewest games per season (10.3) of any first-round running back drafted from 2015 to 2020.
That doesn’t even account for the debate about whether running backs are worth a big investment when healthy. Of the eight with the highest AAV, only Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints and Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns have been on teams that won playoff games since signing their deals, and none have been to a Super Bowl.
There are executives around the league who are adamant investing substantial money into the position isn’t ideal for roster construction. It’s a “luxury” is how one personnel director described it recently. A luxury the Giants, with significant deficiencies along the offensive line and at edge rusher, arguably can’t afford. The last team to win a Super Bowl with a highly-compensated running back was the Seattle Seahawks during the 2013 season with Marshawn Lynch.
It certainly leaves the Giants, and possibly a new general manager, in a predicament. Barkley is the team’s most explosive playmaker — when healthy. That qualifier is necessary and concerning.
Three of the four current and former high-level executives who were asked by ESPN said they wouldn’t re-sign Barkley to a long-term deal.
“I don’t even know that I would want him. What’s the point?” one NFL executive said, pointing to the injuries and market value he believes exists for a player with Barkley’s pedigree. “I don’t hold it against him [personally]. But he hasn’t been available. That is why you don’t invest in the position.”
All three of the executives who said they wouldn’t give Barkley a long-term deal preferred the fifth-year option and possibly the franchise tag in 2023 before cutting their losses. The other believed in trying to sign him to a deal after the season (if he returns healthy and finishes strong) while his price is depressed.
But what is the right price?
One of the executives suggested he would use his team’s analytics department to determine Barkley’s value. He said that would almost certainly be below the running back’s expectations and his estimated market value.
But that strategy would at least allow the Giants to make an offer for Barkley to decline. In other words, extract as much production out of his body as possible before moving on.
It’s not that anyone dislikes Barkley the player. It’s Barkley the investment they find more difficult to accept.
From a football perspective, there is a lot to like.
“I would say this, because he is so explosive, including in the passing game, I would work hard within reason to keep him,” former NFL general manager and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum said on ESPN Radio. “When you go back to the Saints game [in Week 4], he makes the one play in the game that changes it all. I’m not saying he’s [Carolina’s Christian] McCaffrey, but a lot of the value — the Alvin Kamaras, the McCaffreys of the world — is they can do things in the passing game, which is what Barkley can do.
“So in a perfect world, don’t pay the running back. I’m on board and get it. But I think his character, his work ethic and most important — what he can do in the passing game — I just think he just puts so much pressure on an opposing team’s defense.”
This discussion will intensify throughout this year and into next season, assuming Barkley can stay healthy. It’s almost hard to believe this is where it stands four years into the career of the player Giants general manager Dave Gettleman once said was “touched by the hand of God.”
A chance to prove his value
The Giants still believe in Barkley. Gettleman was as defiant this summer about him being the right pick at No. 2 overall in 2018, despite the injuries.
Stephania Bell, Field Yates and Matthew Berry discuss the health of Saquon Barkley and what to expect if he plays against Tampa Bay.
Coach Joe Judge objects to the idea that this latest injury diminishes Barkley’s value.
“I don’t know that he is [losing money]. I think this injury is getting blown completely out of proportion. This isn’t like his knee is flaring up and he can’t get over it. He’s past that injury. He stepped on a guy’s foot. It’s a YMCA injury,” Judge told ESPN. “This isn’t like, here’s a knee, now a hamstring. This injury here is a freak injury. This to me is completely independent of all the other stuff. I don’t think this puts him in that neighborhood of the worrisome part of that.”
Said Barkley: “Everything we want to accomplish is still out there. [I need to] just try to get back healthy as I can to go out there and try to make a run at this thing in the second half of the season.”
He took his eyes off his opponent for a millisecond six weeks ago in Dallas, and he’s still suffering the consequences. It was a low ankle sprain that did not heal as quickly as expected.
Then a false positive COVID-19 test before the Giants played host to the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 9 — right before their bye — was another setback as Barkley couldn’t practice most of that week. The Giants, taking into account he had to unexpectedly shut down his body for a few days, weren’t going to risk putting him back on the field after one practice.
That pushed Barkley’s return to Week 11, and Monday’s game will be his first of eight remaining games this season. They could be crucial to his future in New York.
“It’s a great opportunity to prove who Saquon Barkley is through adversity,” Giants safety Logan Ryan said. “He might not have faced a ton in his career and I didn’t face a lot. Things went my way because I worked hard and prepared. But [adversity] hits you, and it’s a great opportunity to prove his value when he gets back.”
Barkley needs to stay on the field down the stretch to provide any hope his Big Apple story will end on a high note, because so far the sideline scene in Dallas, when he was pounding those superhuman thighs, seems to say it all about the likelihood of landing a megadeal from the Giants.