Our “Cover 3” question of the week is: What does the Giants’ selection of running back Saquon Barkley say about the current and future state of the game?
JOHN SCHMEELK: This is a great question, and I’m happy it isn’t of the “Fact or Fiction” variety because it is a very gray area. As we have discussed ad nauseam over the past couple of months, the modern analytics still indicate that it’s passing the football that leads to offensive production, points, and therefore winning football games. Running the ball simply doesn’t move the needle according to the advanced numbers. More and more teams are investing in analytics and I don’t think there is anyone out there that won’t admit that the NFL is a passing league. You need a good quarterback that can threaten a defense through the air to be a good offense. That is not going to change.
That being said, I have seen a shift in some teams thinking in regards to the importance of winning up front offensively. This is partially related to the running back position so I’ll include it here. Offensive line play in protecting the quarterback, and opening up the running game is being recognized as a premium skill. It lends to balance. With smaller linebackers coming into the league, and teams going to more and more sub-packages with smaller players at defensive tackle and only two linebackers on the field on first and second downs, running the football to punish them for it has become more important. That’s the balance teams are looking for. It’s about forcing certain personnel and formations from the defense to open up aspects of the offense. Teams also believe a good running game helps teams close out games that they already have leads in by reducing risk on offense and keeping the opponent’s offense off the field.
The final point I’ll make tells a different story. Generally speaking, the running back position is still a timeshare position. You aren’t seeing 400 touch seasons from running backs anymore. “It takes a village,” as Pat Shurmur said earlier in the offseason. There are exceptions, and Barkley may be one of them, but I don’t think the clock will ever be turned back to the day where Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, or LaDainian Tomlinson are getting all their team’s carries. That transformation has already happened and we aren’t going back.
DAN SALOMONE: After no running back was taken anywhere in the first round in 2013 and 2014, the position was pronounced dead, a relic in the golden age of quarterbacks. But here we are now. A running back has been selected in the top five for three consecutive years, most recently Saquon Barkley by the Giants, who didn’t have a conviction on one of the most hyped quarterback classes to come around. More importantly, no one can fault the decisions. The Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott, who led the league in rushing as a rookie and led the team to a 13-3 record. The Jaguars selected Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 1,000 yards and helped bring the Jaguars three minutes from a Super Bowl trip in his first year.
The Giants are hoping Barkley can have a similar impact from a position no one thought was important just a few years ago. Why the change? First, coaches and front offices never really bought into that — they know the real, and sometimes hidden, value of a running game, which can affect all areas on both sides of the ball. Secondly, it’s a copycat league and everything goes in cycles. When you have a Brady, Brees, Favre, Manning or Rodgers, yeah, you’re going to feature the quarterback. But no MVP quarterback has won the Super Bowl in the same season since 1999. I think what we’re seeing, as these Hall of Fame quarterbacks end their careers, the league is returning to some semblance of balance. We’re on an all-time run of quarterbacks — Drew Brees is about to become yet another new career passing yards leader — but who fills that void when they’re gone? Perhaps it’s the running backs.
LANCE MEDOW: No matter how many times people continue to run with the narrative: “the NFL is a pass happy league,” the run game has always been important and the difference in teams missing/making the playoffs or winning/losing the Super Bowl. That’s why I don’t think a few running backs taken in the top five, over the last few drafts, says anything about the state of the game. The run game never went anywhere. It just wasn’t talked about and emphasized much in the court of public opinion because thanks to the emergence of fantasy sports and quarterback statistics, most get too caught up in those storylines as opposed to the real difference makers on the field.
In each of the last three seasons, a running back has been selected in the top five. In 2016, the Cowboys grabbed Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott at number four, the Jaguars took Leonard Fournette, out of LSU, with the fourth overall pick in 2017 and, this year, the Giants went with Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, at number two. Elliott and Fournette both had strong rookie campaigns but the common theme between both players was the advantage of running behind solid offensive lines. In 2017, nine of the top ten teams in rushing yards per game in the regular season made the playoffs. The exception was the Cowboys and they wound up just missing the postseason at 9-7. The eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles finished third. In 2016, the Patriots, who went on to win the Lombardi Trophy, were seventh. Four of the last six Super Bowl champs finished in the top 11 in rushing yards per game in the regular season.
No matter how great your quarterback is playing or how well established your quarterback is in the league, you need a run game. The Cowboys, Jaguars and Giants all realize that but they also prioritized making sure the other facets of the team surrounding the running back are in order. Will other teams follow? That will depend on the depth at running back in any given draft and how much that player can provide aside from just running the ball. Pass catching skills and reliability in pass protection are just as important when you’re taking a running back in the top five.