Just How Good Has Saquon Barkley Been?

A lot has been said already about Saquon Barkley, including a few hundred words on him from yours truly in various articles. The hype had exceeded that of Trent Richardson, Todd Gurley and countless other prospects. Dynasty owners were throwing mountains of picks and premium players away just to draft Saquon Barkley in their rookie drafts. Expectations couldn’t have been higher, despite Barkley being drafted to a team with a washed up quarterback and a porous offensive line.

Yet, Barkley has met if not exceeded all expectations to date. The owners who made those blockbuster deals are now smiling ear to ear on a weekly basis when they watch him play. Meanwhile, his dynasty ADP is firmly entrenched in the top 5. So where exactly does Saquon Barkley as a rookie rank against past top RB prospects and elite rookies of the 21st century?

The Busts

Not every highly touted running back prospect has a great rookie season, and not every rookie with a great rookie season goes on to have future success.

Cadillac Williams was a #5 overall draft pick in 2005, going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a highly productive career at Auburn. In his rookie season he was named rookie of the year thanks to gaining more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage. Cadillac would go on to suffer a wide range of injuries over the course of his career varying in severity and never again reached 1,000 yards rushing.

A lot of people seem to think that Trent Richardson wasn’t considered an elite prospect like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott. Those people may want to go back and reread some of the things being said about Richardson in the spring of 2012. And for a season it looked like the NFL scouts and draft talking heads were right. Richardson reached the 1,300 scrimmage yard mark and punched in an impressive 12 touchdowns (though he was overshadowed for rookie of the year by the equally short-lived success of Robert Griffin III).

Richardson, however, couldn’t even last through his 2nd season before being traded to Indianapolis, and by 2014 he was already playing his final NFL season. It turned out Richardson was impressively bad, and the only potential warning sign his rookie year was a paltry 3.6 yards per carry average.

The Recent Top 10 Picks

In 2015 the Rams selected Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pickm and one year later the Dallas Cowboys spent the #4 pick on Ezekiel Elliott. 1 year after THAT, seeing the success of the prior picks, the Jaguars selected Leonard Fournette of LSU at #4. All 3 were frequently referred to as “best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson”, which is a little strange since they were drafted in back to back to back seasons. Regardless, they all broke out as rookies with huge seasons.

Gurley sat out the first few weeks and only had 6 carries for 9 yards in his debut. But his second game was a 19 carry, 146 yard, 2 touchdown explosion that highlighted Gurley’s incredible athleticism. He finished the season with just under 100 scrimmage yards and a touchdown per game. After being saved from the evil clutches of Jeff Fisher in 2016, Gurley’s talent has been on full display for the now Los Angeles Rams and most would consider him the best back in the league (oh, and he’s a pretty solid dynasty asset by the way).

Elliott burst onto the scene even stronger than Gurley did with 1,600 yards rushing to lead the league and lead his Cowboys to a division title. Things have been more complicated lately thanks to off field issues and the slight decline of the Dallas offensive line, but nobody would doubt Elliott is one of the best backs in the NFL – and he’s still only 23.

Fournette compiled 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns and, like Elliott before him, helped shape his team into a formidable ground and pound division winner. He was hobbled by a nagging ankle injury in a handful of games, however, and nagging injuries have been the only thing holding Fournette back yet again this year.

The Sophomores

Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt don’t fit in with the other players on this list as day 2 draft picks in 2017. Still, their success, matches up easily with the elite prospects of the list.

Kamara and Hunt both reached the 1,500 scrimmage yard mark as rookies and also led all the backs named so far in receptions during their rookie years showing both their individual versatility as well as the direction the game and the running back position has shifted. While Hunt had more yards, Kamara took the passing back role to another level with 81 receptions and more than half his yards through the air.

The Comparisons

Highly touted prospects have their names thrown out in comparison to Hall of Fame caliber players too easily in the pre draft process. It’s unfair to expect anybody to be the next Adrian Peterson or  LaDainian Tomlinson. Yet I heard Saquon Barkley compared to both at various points of the pre-draft process. Obviously, we all know the amazing feats AP and LT went on to accomplish. Both will surely go down as two of the best backs of all time, so it’s no surprise that their rookie campaigns were impressive.

Both hit the 1,600 yard, 10 touchdown marks in their first season and only got better from there. As you’ll see in a minute, however, Peterson only had 19 receptions as a rookie and never developed into a pass catching back. As impressive as they both are, this makes Peterson a poor fit as a stylistic player comp. Barkley is a far better fit for the modern NFL and more in line with LT’s dynamic skill-set.

So where does that leave Saquon Barkley? How does he actually stack up? Lets take a look.

Player Games Receptions Total Yards Total TDs FP/G Total FP
Saquon Barkley * 16 116 2,032 14 25.20 403.2
Ezekiel Elliott 15 32 1,994 16 21.16 317.4
Alvin Kamara 16 81 1,554 13 19.53 312.4
Kareem Hunt 16 53 1,782 11 18.45 295.2
LaDainian Tomlinson 16 59 1,603 10 16.46 263.3
Adrian Peterson 14 19 1,609 13 17.85 249.9
Trent Richardson 15 51 1,317 12 16.58 248.7
Leonard Fournette 13 36 1,342 10 17.40 226.2
Todd Gurley 13 21 1,294 10 15.72 204.4
Cadillac Williams 14 20 1,259 6 12.56 175.9

* = Projected 16 game numbers

That’s…pretty damn good. I don’t know if he can sustain his current pace, but if he is able to he would easily edge Ezekiel Elliotts 2016 season for tops on the list. That’s just how impressive the rookie has been this season despite atrocious offensive line and QB play.

And if that’s what’s happening now, what heights can Barkley reach? What records won’t he break?

Well, lets calm down. First, we need to assume his health holds up this year to reach the vaunted 400 point plateau. Then let’s hope his health holds out throughout his career so the he can avoid the major derailment and nagging roadblocks of players like Cadillac Williams and Leonard Fournette. I certainly can’t foresee any Trent Richardson-esque collapses in his future, but it would still be good to avoid a 2016 Jeff Fisher-esque purgatory like the one that dragged down Todd Gurley for a season. And then of course there’s simple regression to expect. I highly doubt Barkley ends the season with 116 catches, and he could tire and slow as the season progresses (does Saquon Barkley actually get tired?).

Eight more games at this rate is a lot to ask, let alone a career full. For now, let’s just enjoy the company he is in and the special talent that he is. And if you’re an owner… well, you can just enjoy it a little extra – hopefully for the next decade.

 

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Eric Braun

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I grew up a die hard Washington Redskins and Penn State football fan and began playing fantasy football in 2007. I've been addicted and learning as much as I can about my favorite hobby ever since.

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