EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Saquon Barkley ranks fourth in the NFL with 1,312 rushing yards. Just 76 yards behind him at No. 5 is Philadelphia's Miles Sanders with 1,236 yards.
That they are right next to each other is entirely fitting, because the two running backs are very close off the field.
Barkley and Sanders were teammates at Penn State in 2016-17. They are now rivals in the NFC East, Barkley with the Giants and Sanders with the Philadelphia Eagles. But that competition has done nothing to dampen their friendship.
"I love Miles," Barkley said this week. "I'm a big fan of his game. Obviously, we play the same position. We played with each other at Penn State. That's someone I always wanted to see have great years and have success."
Barkley and Sanders will have an opportunity to reacquaint tomorrow, when the Giants face the Eagles in Lincoln Financial Field in the regular-season finale.
Because the Giants can't move from the sixth seed in the NFC playoffs – and because he has a career-high 352 scrimmage touches - how much Barkley plays remains to be seen. Coach Brian Daboll has not revealed how much his starters will play.
The Eagles have more at stake. They need to win to lock up first place in the NFC East and a first-round bye. So, Sanders might get more work than Barkley, which would give him the chance to pass his friend in the rushing yardage rankings. Though he's ultra-competitive, Barkley could live with that.
"At the end of the day, you want everyone to be successful," he said. "It's not about money, but you would love to see one of your good friends, one of your former teammates, get paid and create a legacy. He's a heck of a back, heck of a player, I think one of the better backs in the NFL. I'm happy for him."
Although Barkley has rushed for more yards, Sanders currently holds the upper hand in their friendly rivalry. When the Eagles defeated the Giants on Dec. 11 in MetLife Stadium, Sanders rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. Barkley was held to 28 yards on nine attempts.
"He's a little happy that he outplayed me last game and got the win," Barkley said. "I started over him in college, so anytime he can get that over me…"
Barkley didn't finish the sentence, but Sanders clearly enjoyed going one up on his former teammate last month.
This has an impressive comeback season for both players. They have each played every game and posted impressive statistics after injuries forced them to miss time last season. Both players have posted their career-best rushing totals.
Barkley missed three games with a sprained ankle and finished the season with 162 carries for 593 yards (3.7-yard avg.) and two touchdowns, plus 41 receptions for 263 yards and two scores. In 16 games this year, he has 719 more rushing yards, a 4.4-yard average, 57 catches (tied for the team lead) and 10 scores. Barkley has been one of the main drivers in the Giants' improvement from four victories to 9-6-1 and a playoff berth.
In 2021, ankle and hand injuries cost Sanders four games. He recorded a career-low 754 yards and did not score a touchdown. This season, his 1,236 yards on a career-high 248 attempts has included 11 scores.
"The year before, he didn't have the best year," Barkley said. "The year prior, I didn't have the best year. And I remember we sent a text – or DM it was – saying, 'See you at the top. We're going to get back to where we want to get to because we're both talented backs.' And we've both been having a hell of a year."
The two backs first met in 2016, when Sanders arrived at Penn State in Barkley's second season there. In the two years they were teammates, Barkley rushed for 2,229 yards and 25 touchdowns, while backup Sanders was limited to 414 yards and three scores. After Barkley left Happy Valley as the Giants' first-round draft choice in 2018, Sanders ran for 1,318 yards and nine touchdowns. Sanders was the Eagles' second-round draft choice in 2019.
"I had a year on him, so I had a little more experience," Barkley said. "We would compete in drills. We would compete in practice. And we always wanted to push each other, try to make each other better. And the goal was to try to make it to the NFL. I left first. I got there, and he came the year after me."
Barkley was asked if their running styles have more similarities or differences.
"I can see some similarities, but he's talented in his own right," Barkley said. "He's got his own game. He's got his own style. And I watch his film; I admire his game. I try to take pieces from his game and add them to mine."
Barkley has the jerseys of several opposing players hanging in his locker, but Sanders isn't among them. "It's in the crib, hanging up," Barkley said. The two friends will spend some time together on Sunday. "I always makes sure I go to him before the game or after the game, chat him up, see how he is," Barkley said. Off the field, they speak on a "here and there" basis, according to Barkley.
"I'm not really a big – anyone who knows me – 'reach out' guy," he said. "I don't really go on my phone like that, texting and stuff. I get cursed out a lot about that by my close friends and loved ones. But I reach out. I never try to bother anyone – give them their space. But I reach out, call him sometimes, check on him, see how he's doing."
This season, with postseason berths clinched and rushing totals well above 1,000 yards, both Barkley and Sanders are doing just fine.
View rare photos of the historic rivalry between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles.