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Running Backs Aren’t Worth Top-Five NFL Draft Picks Unless They’re Named Saquon Barkley

The Penn State product is a workout hero, an open-field menace, and one of the best pass-catching backs you’ll ever see. But is he worth such a high draft pick in an era that’s devalued his position?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2018, running backs get paid less than kickers. We consider running back to be one of football’s premium positions, since we play fantasy sports, and since we’re used to the premise of the players running the ball being stars. But NFL teams value them below kickers, right guards, defensive tackles, and punters, among other positions. On average, running back is the third-lowest-paid position in the NFL, ahead of just long snappers and fullbacks. (And fullbacks are essentially a subcategory of running back.)

It’s easy to understand why. Investing in a running back was always a risky proposition, as running back careers are generally short and injury-riddled. Now, it’s both risky and foolish, because the passing game has become king. Teams win by passing often and running occasionally, thereby preventing opposing defenses from dedicating all of their resources to stopping the pass. I would have argued that the main point of having a run game was to set up play-action passes, but data shows that running the ball frequently does not make play-action passes more effective. Now, even run plays can feature live passing routes—the run-pass option.

So it’s odd that for the third straight year, it seems likely that a running back will be taken within the top five picks of the NFL draft. Two years ago, the Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall; last year, the Jaguars grabbed Leonard Fournette in the same spot. In two weeks, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley might even go higher. He was the betting favorite to be the first overall pick after the combine, and many mock drafters who don’t have him going first to the Browns have him going second to the Giants.

NFL teams in 2018 should not be using high draft picks on running backs. Unless, of course, that running back happens to be Saquon Barkley, whose usefulness on a football field should extend beyond the typical parameters of an increasingly irrelevant position.

Even in the league’s run-happy days, teams seemed to realize that drafting a running back with a high pick wasn’t wise. Four running backs won NFL MVP in the 1990s, and just seven backs that decade were taken in the top five of the draft. (Two of those six, Ki-Jana Carter and Curtis Enis, were massive busts out of Penn State. Anonymous NFL scout voice: Saquon Barkley is a GUARANTEED BUST because of these guys from 20 years ago.)

Now, it seems sillier than ever to invest heavily in a back. In 2015, Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, Chris Ivory, and Darren McFadden were four of the five leading rushers in the NFL. In 2017, those four ranked 39th, 49th, 51st, and tied for 293rd in rushing yardage. They were usurped by Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara, the 2017 league leaders in rushing yardage and yards per attempt, respectively. Last season Hunt and Kamara were both rookies selected in the third round of the draft. Why devote significant resources to acquiring a top-tier running back if Day 2 draft picks can outperform them?

Of course, while Hunt and Kamara weren’t particularly sought after on draft day, their skill sets are perfectly suited for the modern NFL. Both players were versatile enough to become integral parts of two of the best passing games in the NFL. Hunt ran great routes out of the backfield to help the Chiefs establish a sideline-to-sideline attack that somehow made Alex Smith into one of the league’s most fearsome passers; Kamara lined up in the slot and on the outside, allowing him to create matchup problems and finish eighth in the league in receptions. Of guys with at least 50 catches, Hunt (84.1 percent) and Kamara (81.0 percent) were first and third in catch rate.

Hunt and Kamara are the types of players NFL teams should look for when drafting running backs. Barkley has the versatility and pass-catching ability that they have, only better, and he also possesses physical traits that will make him one of the best athletes in a league full of freakish athletes.

Barkley looks like this when running routes out of the slot:

And like this when running routes out of the backfield:

Let us not worry about Saquon’s hands:

In addition to his receiving abilities, Barkley is death to defenders in the open field. Midway through his final collegiate season, I wrote about 26 tackles that he successfully evaded, and his list of scalps is impressive. He juked future NFL Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa, thoughtlessly ditched Iowa All-American Josey Jewell and hurdled a slew of defenders whose names I will leave out of print for the sake of their families. I’ve never seen a player so effective at destroying defenders one on one, and so happy to do so.

His on-field highlights are backed up by workout highlights. His lifting videos are the stuff of legend, and he showed out at the combine by clocking a 4.40-second 40-yard dash, putting up 29 bench press reps, and recording a 41-inch vertical leap. That means he can run faster than almost every wide receiver in the league despite weighing 233 pounds, is stronger than almost every running back in the league, and can jump higher than almost anybody in the league, regardless of position. (As noted above, he also literally jumps over opponents.)

Barkley is a workout hero, an open-field menace, and one of the best pass-catching backs you’ll ever see—but he’s not perfect. He isn’t that good at running the ball up the middle. Barkley was often stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage in college. In a 31-7 win over Northwestern, for example, Barkley had 16 carries, nine of which went for a loss, and two of which went for no gain. He still finished with 75 rushing yards and two touchdowns. In a 39-38 loss to Ohio State, he registered nine rushes for a loss on 21 carries. A lot of this fell on Penn State’s lackluster offensive line, but Barkley nonetheless displayed a troubling tendency: Instead of plowing ahead into defenders and trying to gain 2 or 3 yards, Barkley would prefer to bounce around and seek an alternate route, a strategy that led to home runs and strikeouts. In the NFL, it’ll likely lead mainly to the latter.

But Barkley has a chance to contribute to the ongoing redefinition of what running backs can be. The value of a great running back is not to turn first-and-10s into second-and-6s. Some teams employ running backs primarily to keep defenses honest, but they are failing to capture the full potential of a running back in the modern NFL. A great running back is a personnel problem, a matchup nightmare whose running ability demands the presence of linebackers on the field and whose pass-catching ability toasts those linebackers through the air. Barkley is exactly that. He is a truck with a race car engine.

If an NFL team drafts Barkley in the top five and treats him like a stereotypical running back, it will represent a wasted pick. The era of players in that mold is gone, and Barkley isn’t ideally suited for it anyway. But if Barkley can do what he did at Penn State and reshape the position in the image of players with his skill set, he’ll do more than just warrant a top-five draft pick. He’ll make it so that it won’t be dumb for teams to use such high picks on running backs moving forward.