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Why Saquon Barkley Will Struggle to Have the Rookie-Year Success of Ezekiel Elliott

The Penn State running back product has all the talent in the world, but the Giants’ offensive infrastructure leaves plenty to be desired

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Aside from the laundry list of quarterbacks who started this NFL season in new surroundings, no player’s Week 1 performance was more highly anticipated than Saquon Barkley’s. When the Giants drafted Barkley with the second overall pick in April—passing on their potential QB of the future—they set off a flurry of debates about the merits of selecting a running back that high in the draft.

One argument made in the Giants’ favor was that, even if Barkley’s long-term value doesn’t approach that of a successful Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen, he’s still a rare talent who could provide an instant jolt to New York’s offense. Barkley’s overwhelming combination of power and big-play ability at Penn State was comparable—and maybe even superior—to what Ezekiel Elliott showed during his time at Ohio State. And the Giants hoped that Barkley could do for their running game what Elliott—who was taken no. 4 overall in 2016—did for the Cowboys as a rookie. In his first season, Elliott led the league in rushing attempts and yards while helping to unlock the Cowboys’ passing game through play-action.

Using Elliott and Dallas’s 2016 offense as a measuring stick, it’s hard not to see Barkley’s first performance as a disappointment. All Week 1 observations come with the caveat that a single game doesn’t provide nearly enough information to say anything definitive. First-team offenses get limited work in the preseason, and the relatively small number of training camp practices this year compared to years past means that units are still searching for their rhythm well into the regular season. Yet even with that in mind, the first look at Barkley and the Giants’ offense in their 20-15 loss to the Jaguars was disheartening for those who thought the college phenom would turn into an instant sensation in the NFL.

Barkley finished the opener with 18 carries for 106 yards and a touchdown. At first glance, that’s one hell of a start, and the Giants would likely take those numbers 10 times out of 10 against the Jaguars defense, which finished no. 1 in DVOA in 2017. But that final line belies what really happened on Sunday. Barkley’s 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter salvaged an otherwise frustrating day, and that scamper was no cakewalk: It required him to shake off a would-be tackler near the line of scrimmage. It’s easy to forget, amid all the similarities between their draft statuses and pedigrees, how different Barkley’s circumstances are to the ones Elliott enjoyed with the Cowboys as a rookie.

The Giants spent this offseason trying to reinvigorate their run game by revamping their offensive line. First-year GM Dave Gettleman handed former Patriots left tackle Nate Solder a four-year, $62 million deal (with $34.8 million guaranteed) that temporarily made him the highest-paid left tackle in the league. Then, to bolster the left side’s interior, Gettleman snagged UTEP guard Will Hernandez in the second round. On the right side of the line, former Jaguars guard Patrick Omameh received a (somewhat surprising) three-year, $15 million deal with more than $10 million in guarantees in March to become the Giants’ starting right guard, and Ereck Flowers moved to the right side in one last-ditch effort to salvage the former top-10 pick’s career. With the promotion of Jon Halapio to starting center, all five spots along the offensive line feature new starters this season.

A Giants fan’s immediate response to that is probably, “It’s about damn time.” Big Blue’s line play over the past couple of seasons has been miserable, and some change—especially change that includes talent upgrades—will eventually do them good. But for now, all that shuffling means a lot of growing pains.

The Giants’ line was completely incompetent on Sunday, and many of its embarrassing gaffes came in pass protection. On the opening play of the game, Flowers had to trip Calais Campbell because he was beaten so badly inside—that was humiliating in its own right. Then, the fourth-year tackle tried to explain his error away by saying the 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell was a “speed guy,” which was downright horrifying. But as bad as this unit was in pass protection, its lack of experience on the ground—both individually and collectively—seemed to be the central issue against Jacksonville.

On Barkley’s first series of the game, the Flowers tripping incident and a separate holding penalty had the Giants facing a second-and-20 pinned deep in their own territory. At the snap, Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson darted across Hernandez’s face and sliced into the backfield to drop Barkley behind the line of scrimmage. That type of mistake is to be expected from a rookie guard on occasion, especially against a quality disruptor like Jackson. But the play was dead before it could even develop.

All game, Barkley was forced to deal with traffic around the line of scrimmage, and while some of that came because of individual screwups, the Giants’ biggest problem was working combination blocks to the second level. Combo blocks involve two linemen (and sometimes a tight end) briefly double-teaming a down defensive lineman before one of them peels off toward a linebacker or safety. These types of blocks are an effective way to handle two defenders, and they form the basis of most NFL running games; they also take a long time to refine when players aren’t familiar with one another. Executing combo blocks well requires a feel for when your partner will disengage from the initial double-team, and several times on Sunday, that lack of feel was on display from the Giants.

Take Barkley’s second-down run from the Jaguars’ 4-yard line late in the first quarter. Looking to punch the ball into the end zone, the Giants lined up with an extra offensive lineman (Chad Wheeler, no. 63) and two tight ends to the right. This play starts to go awry with Campbell’s initial penetration, but the real trouble begins when safety Barry Church also spills into the backfield. On first look, tight end Evan Engram appears to be at fault for letting Church slip through—Engram’s first step is small enough that Church is able to streak across his face and blow up the play. But look again, and based on Engram’s initial movement, it appears that he expected to get more help from tight end Rhett Ellison before Ellison moved toward the linebacker. Either way, as Barkley bounces the run outside, Church is there to swiftly stop him in his tracks.

In the third quarter, the Giants had a similar issue when facing a second-and-10 from the Jaguars’ 33-yard line. After motioning across the formation, Ellison initially engages with Solder to block Lerentee McCray before breaking off to clock safety Tashaun Gipson. The only problem is that Solder broke off at the same time to deal with linebacker Telvin Smith, leaving McCray free to smack Barkley in the backfield. Barkley somehow managed to shrug off a tackle, bounce to his right, and still rush for a 4-yard gain (though that was later called back on a holding penalty).

Every so often, Barkley’s talent is going to take over, and his 68-yard touchdown demonstrated just how small of an opening he needs to turn what should be a short gain into a home run. Here, the Giants manage to get a hand on every Jags defender in the box except linebacker Myles Jack, but even a superb athlete like Jack is going to have his issues with Barkley in the open field. Barkley shakes him with a jump cut outside, shrugs off one more tackle, and he’s gone. On the few chunk gains that Barkley did have against Jacksonville, he was left alone with just one defender to shake. That’s a matchup the Giants will take whenever they can; it just didn’t happen often enough in Week 1.

When Elliott arrived in Dallas, he was the final piece of the Cowboys’ running-game puzzle. In 2011, 2013, and 2014, the team spent three first-round picks on quality offensive linemen (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin). By the time Elliott got to town, that group had turned into a well-oiled, road-grading machine. In 2014, they’d paved the way for DeMarco Murray to rush for 1,845 yards and 13 scores on his way to winning Offensive Player of the Year. Plopping a back of Elliott’s caliber into the equation was a guaranteed success.

In New York, Barkley is hardly the final piece of anything. The Giants offense is decidedly a work in progress, featuring mostly marginal talents still trying to learn each other’s quirks under new head coach Pat Shurmur. Even the few passes thrown Barkley’s way—passes delivered by two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning—showed a lack of timing and precision, with one screen pass bouncing off Barkley’s back shoulder and another sliding through his hands after he had to jump for the pass.

Again: It’s still very early. But the first look at Barkley in this Giants offense provided plenty of ammunition to those who criticized Gettleman for ignoring all of the young, talented quarterbacks in this year’s draft in favor of taking Barkley. Almost all running backs, no matter how talented, are somewhat dependent on the quality of their surroundings. A great support system can dramatically elevate a running back. A great quarterback, on the other hand, can dramatically elevate the support system. The Giants’ line should get better with more time together—and not every defense brings the speed and tenacity that the Jaguars do. But there’s no guarantee that this group will ever get to a place where it can fully unleash Barkley. A spectacular run here and there is inevitable given his ability, but his rookie campaign is unlikely to mirror the efficiency of Elliott’s debut season.