2018-04-26 16:48:03
Saquon Barkley Tries to Bring Running Backs Into the Draft Spotlight

16:48, April 26 59 0

The last time a running back was selected with the top overall pick in the N.F.L. draft, it was 1995, and the Cincinnati Bengals took Ki-Jana Carter, a 6-foot, 230-odd-pound dynamo rumbling out of Penn State.

The Bengals even traded up to get him.

“Not all running backs have breakaway speed,” said John Garrett, a Bengals offensive assistant that year who is now the head coach at Lafayette. Carter “was a guy who could finish runs and score, rather than have vision and elusiveness or power to get free but then get caught.”

“On the surface,” Garrett added, “it was a no-brainer.”

This year, the running back who has captivated fans and front offices is Saquon Barkley, a 6-foot, 230-odd-pounder rumbling out of Penn State. He may be headed to another Ohio N.F.L. franchise, the Cleveland Browns, with the first pick in the draft.

Some think Barkley is so special that the Browns should pick him over the draft’s four highly rated quarterbacks — Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen. In many mock drafts, the Giants take Barkley with the second overall pick, which would be the highest a running back has gone since 2006, when the New Orleans Saints picked the reigning Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.

No matter where Barkley is selected Thursday night in Arlington, Tex., it will most likely be higher than the recent trend. Since Carter — whose career never fully took off after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during his first preseason game — the draft’s first running back has been selected an average of roughly 14th.

Perhaps football’s most glamorous position other than quarterback, running back nonetheless tends to receive comparatively little love in the N.F.L.’s annual evaluation of prospective talent.

While running backs may comprise some of the game’s most exciting and significant players, there are many of them with similar skill sets competing for relatively few spots, creating a rare buyer’s market for teams that are otherwise cutthroat in trying to attain the best players at positions like quarterback and defensive end, where the talented are few and the supremely gifted are even fewer.

Joe Banner, a former executive for the Browns and the Eagles, said running back is “the only position in football where there’s actually an abundance of talent.”

“We all study supply and demand in the first economics course we took,” he added. “When you have this much supply, the price goes down — the value goes down.”

This may be particularly true in today’s pass-happy game. The increased importance of the passing game means that the drop-off between the very best running back and the merely good is not so dramatic, whereas the difference between the spectacular and the solid at quarterback can be a decade-long playoff run and years of 8-8 or worse.

“You don’t use a second or fourth pick in the draft on a running back that’s probably only moderately better than the guy you could get in the second or third round,” Banner said.

In other words, the running back in football is a little like the quarterback in fantasy football — something of an interchangeable part where productivity isn’t that hard to find.

But Charley Casserly, a former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager, argued that the conventional wisdom has gone too far. For Casserly, Barkley’s talent wins out.

“If Saquon Barkley was there and we were picking, we would take the guy,” he said.

In fact, Casserly, who was celebrated for unearthing stars late in the draft, argued that quarterbacks were inherently overrated. Casserly should know — he selected Heath Shuler with the third pick in 1994.

“It’s the most important position on the field, and those players tend to get overvalued because teams reach on them,” Casserly said.

Well into the 1990s, it was not unusual for the highest-drafted running back to go before the highest-drafted quarterback. Several running backs went No. 1, including future stars like O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Bo Jackson.

“The guys that were taken high in the first round ended up being really good,” Garrett observed.

That trend flipped at about the time of the Carter pick. In the 22 drafts since then, a quarterback has been selected first overall 14 times. Many of those players became franchise signal-callers like Peyton and Eli Manning, Michael Vick, Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck and Jared Goff. Notable highly drafted running backs during this period include LaDainian Tomlinson (No. 5); Adrian Peterson (No. 7); and one of the biggest busts in recent years, Trent Richardson (No. 3).

Just how highly desired Barkley is Thursday night may come down as much to the specifics of his talent as to its raw abundance. Barkley is a so-called “three-down back,” able to contribute whether it is first-and-10, second-and-short or third-and-long. He can run all kinds of rushing plays; pass-block; make catches out of the backfield; and even line up as a wide receiver and run traditional routes.

“He does everything,” Casserly said. “Home-run ability with speed, ability to run inside with quickness. He’s got some power to him, can change directions. He can catch the ball really well — much better than most running backs — and can do it spread out in the formation.”

That versatility is supremely valuable in disrupting defensive matchups.

“When you have that uniqueness to a back, the value goes way up because of the advantage you have as an offense to line up in the same personnel you do on first down and third down,” said Trent Dilfer, who quarterbacked the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl win after the 2000 season. “Now the defense can’t sub against you as much.”

It is poetic that Barkley’s name will be called at the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, since two years ago Dallas selected another superlative three-down back, Ezekiel Elliott, with the fourth overall pick. Elliott’s six-game suspension last year for domestic violence provided a natural experiment of sorts: since picking Elliott, the Cowboys have gone 19-7 with him and 3-3 without him. Elliott’s apparent importance is a strong argument for Barkley’s.

In a recent interview, Dilfer all but drew up plays for Barkley, fantasizing about bringing him out of the backfield before the snap and matching him up against a too-slow opposing linebacker.

Players like Elliott and Barkley, Dilfer said, make “everyone’s job easier. He makes the tight end’s job easier, the right guard, the quarterback, the playcallers.”