So much for Saquon Barkley being a ‘Giant for life’ [Update]
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So much for Saquon Barkley being a ‘Giant for life’ [Update]

It’s official. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the New York Giants will not give running back Saquon Barkley the franchise tag. He will hit the open market for the first time since entering the league in 2018.

Barkley enters a free-agent class loaded with running back talent. With most NFL teams following the Giants’ decision not to tag their running backs, the market is loaded with big-name veteran talent. Big names like Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard, Austin Ekeler, and Ezekiel Elliott are set to hit the open market at the start of the new league year.

Of this group, Barkley is third behind Derrick Henry and Josh Jacobs in rushing yards, averages the fourth-most yards per rush attempt, has the second-most receptions, and boasts the fourth-most receiving yards.

Barkley has spent the last six seasons with the New York Giants. The former Penn State running back became the first Giants player to lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage since Tiki Barber in 2005. He also set the franchise’s rookie record for yards from scrimmage, edging out Odell Beckham Jr. If this is the end of Barkley’s time in a Giants uniform, he will finish fourth all-time on the Giants’ rushing list with 5,211 yards.

The New York Giants are likely parting ways with longtime running back Saquon Barkley.

ESPN’s Jordan Raanan said during an appearance on 98.7 ESPN Radio that the Giants will not tag Barkley for a second time, adding “It seems like this is headed for Barkley to hit free agency.”

Barkley was drafted by the Giants second overall in 2018, winning Rookie of the Year and making two Pro Bowls in his six seasons with the Giants. New York decided to tag Barkley at the end of the 2022 season instead of allowing the back to hit the open market, retaining his talents for another year. Barkley had previously expressed interest in being a “Giant For Life” during the season, but the last calendar year of contract negotiations has left the almost 27-year-old running back jaded. Barkley has since declared that “loyalty means nothing” in the NFL and that if he thinks about his current situation, he “would go insane.”

When asked about the potential of being tagged again this upcoming offseason, Barkley responded as a shell of his former optimistic self.

“They did it last year. So I’m numb to it,” Barkley said. “I don’t have any feelings toward that at all. If you’re gonna do it, just don’t wait until March 5. Just get it over with. If not, let me go. Simple.”

The two-time Pro Bowl running back had a down year any way you slice it. His 3.9 yards per rushing attempt were the second lowest in his career among healthy seasons. His receiving efficiency so highly lauded during his rookie season is still down, a full two yards per target shorter than his career-high season three years ago. Among running backs in 2023, Barkley ranked 58th among 68 qualifying backs in rushing DYAR (min. 50 rushing attempts) and 16th among 40 qualifying backs in receiving DYAR (min. 35 targets). Within PFF’s grading system, Barkley ranked 45th as a rusher (69 RBs, min. 50 attempts) and 24th as a receiver (38 RBs, min. 35 targets).

That didn’t stop the Giants from using him as their offensive engine. New York gave Barkley the ball nearly 300 times during the 2023 season. No other Giant cracked 100 touches; only four even broke 50. Barkley’s 288 touches were eighth in all of football this past season. In his five healthy seasons (plus the two games in his 2020 season shortened by injury), the Giants running back has 1,489 career touches, cracking the 300-touch mark twice.

The debate over running back contracts is well-tread and exhausting to re-hash. Last year’s running back market cycle showed how desperate quality running backs are for a payday. After Barkley, Tony Pollard, and 2022 leading rusher Josh Jacobs all played this season on the franchise tag, running backs took to X/Twitter to voice their outrage.

Christian McCaffrey called the tagged trio “three of the best PLAYERS” in the league. Austin Ekeler said running backs were being artificially devalued by analytics. Najee Harris pointed out that teams need running backs to win. Derrick Henry argued running backs should be taken out of football if they’re going to be financially mistreated. Former running back Le’Veon Bell taught us about the communist undertones of A Bug’s Life.

Teams ended up being proven right in their decision to sit pat and not pay out, though. Barkley had his down year. Pollard, an efficient backup who used to play alongside Ezekiel Elliott and his bloated contract, posted the lowest yards per rushing attempt of his career and couldn’t beat his 2022 rushing yard totals dispute seeing 60 more carries. Jacobs got banged up, missed four games, and saw a career-low in yards per rush (3.5) and yards per touch (4.1).

The few who are legitimately worth the capital investment at running back from a team-building perspective – like current NFC Champion Christian McCaffrey – are only able to get their contracts under the right circumstances. The San Francisco 49ers can pay McCaffrey the league’s highest running back contract at over $16 million APY and still build a functional offense because they pay their quarterback Brock Purdy just over $1 million. That’s a luxury. Kansas City doesn’t have that luxury with the half-billion-dollar man Patrick Mahomes at the helm, so they have former seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco carry the load at $1 million per year. He outperformed Barkley by nearly every metric in 2023, efficiency-wise and analytically.

Will it be fair when Kansas City eventually screws him over and leaves him high and dry? Absolutely not. These backs have the biggest workload in the league and get paid a fraction of what they are owed. But that is the current state of the league’s cap situation. Whether it be to retain longtime veteran presences or reward the fruits of cheap, early-career labor, running back financials need to be changed. Without it, we lose the chance to have awesome moments, where Barkley can be a “Giant For Life” and continue to rep a city that appreciates him.

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