With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com (BBI) breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Running Backs
2022 YEAR IN REVIEW: Heading into 2022, there was real concern that the trajectory of Saquon Barkley’s career was going to be eerily and tragically similar to that of Tucker Frederickson, the top overall selection in the 1965 NFL Draft selected by the Giants. The uber-talented Frederickson was drafted in front of NFL legends Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, and Joe Namath, but saw his career derailed early due to knee injuries. He was never the same and retired after seven seasons. Barkley had not played a full season since his rookie campaign in 2018 and was a shadow of his former self in the 13 games that he did play in 2021, coming off his serious knee injury in 2020. His former explosion was not there. Worse, he looked gun-shy and tentative, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry.
However, 2022 proved to be Barkley’s second-best season. While he still not completely recapture the dynamism of his rookie season, Barkley ran with a tougher and more physical style. He finished the season with a career-high 295 rushing attempts for 1,312 yards (4.4 yards per carry), and 10 touchdowns. He also tied for the team lead in receptions with 57 passes for 338 yards. Barkley only fumbled the ball once, out of bounds. He also played in every game, except for being a healthy scratch in the regular-season finale. Barkley made his second Pro Bowl.
The oddity to Barkley’s 2022 season was how his usage declined as the year progressed. Before the bye, Barkley averaged 20 carries and 97 rushing yards per game. Immediately, after the bye, he carried the ball a career-high 35 times against the Texans for 152 yards. After that, over the course of the next seven regular-season games, Barkley averaged 14 carries and 54 rushing yards per game. In the two playoff games, in total, he carried the ball only 18 times for 114 yards. Why? Wear-and-tear issues or concerns? Greater emphasis on throwing the ball? Note that the Giants were 7-2 through the Houston game, 2-4-1 in the remaining regular-season games before the meaningless finale, and 1-1 in the playoffs. Coincidence?
Barkley’s primary back-ups were Matt Breida (54 carries for 220 yards and one touchdown, 20 catches for 118 yards) and Gary Brightwell (31 carries for 141 yards and one touchdown, five catches for 39 yards). Unexpectedly, Bredia’s usage did not increase as Barkley’s declined in the second half of the season. The Giants simply did not run the ball as much. Breida only averaged four touches per game, both as a runner and receiver.
Undrafted rookie free agent Jashaun Corbin spent the season on the Practice Squad.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Saquon Barkley remains unsigned as the team’s Franchise player. The Giants re-signed Matt Breida to a 1-year, $1.4 million deal in free agency and drafted Eric Gray in the 5th round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Almost all of the media and fan attention now is on Saquon Barkley’s contract situation. July 17 is the key date. That is the deadline for teams that designated a Franchise player to sign a multi-year contract extension. After this, Barkley can only sign one-year contract that cannot be renegotiated until after the regular-season is over. Barkley’s hands are pretty much tied after July 17. He can sign his 1-year, $10 million tender or make a statement and hurt the team by holding out during training camp and the preseason. But he can’t change his contract situation after July 17 and before 2024.
So the key story line here is will Barkley hold out and be rusty when the regular-season starts? This may all be moot if he signs a multi-year deal before July 17. If not and he misses training camp and the preseason, it could impact the team on the field in September.
It may be best for Barkley to grin and bear the situation. The 2023 New York Giants are arguably the most-talented team of Barkley’s pro career. Improved play by a dual-threat at quarterback, the presence of the dangerous Darren Waller and an emerging Daniel Bellinger at tight end, a capable group of wide receivers, hopefully an improved offensive line, and a top-notch coaching staff should open things up for him as a runner and receiver. In other words, he should have more room to operate. Teams can’t simply concentrate on him. What will be interesting to watch is the run-pass ratio moving forward. That may be the #1 on-the-field story line at running back. Does Barkley come close to averaging 20 rushing attempts per game? Likewise, could his impact grow as a receiver?
ON THE BUBBLE: The Giants carried three running backs on the 53-man roster in 2022. Barring injury, Saquon Barkley and Eric Gray are locks, with Matt Breida being very close to a lock as well. The question is do the Giants carry four this year, and if so, will it be Gary Brightwell or Jashaun Corbin? One would have thought Brightwell was toast after the hiring of Brian Daboll, but his usage went way up under the new coaching staff and he flashed at times. He also plays special teams. Corbin is a forgotten player who could still surprise.
FROM TEAM OFFICIALS/COACHES: Assistant General Manager Brandon Brown on Saquon Barkley: “We love Saquon. He knows how I feel about him, he knows how we feel about him collectively.”
Running Backs Coach Jeff Nixon on Matt Breida: “Matt Breida is a great guy to have around; he has a veteran presence and really understands the offense. You know, he was with Coach Daboll in Buffalo, so he’s kind of like in his third year in the offense. Great guy to have around to help some of our younger running backs.”
Running Backs Coach Jeff Nixon on Gary Brightwell: “He got opportunities last year, I thought he performed well. He started the last game against Philly. He’s still an arrow-up player. I think he’s getting a lot better.”
Running Backs Coach Jeff Nixon on Jashaun Corbin: “Corbin you know, he was on the Practice Squad last year, but I really like his progress and he knows the offense. He’s going to really be able to show what he can do during training camp.”
Running Backs Coach Jeff Nixon on Eric Gray: “He’s someone we thought performed as a three-down running back (at Oklahoma). Fortunately for him, his college coach was DeMarco Murray, so he had a really good one that kind of trained him to be to be a pro running back, and he’s been a constant pro since he’s been here. He fits right in with this group of running backs that I want to coach.”
Running Backs Coach Jeff Nixon on what he looks for in a running back: “I want to coach guys that can play on all three downs and who can be complete running backs. I always say I know the running backs can run the football. I mean, that’s what they naturally do. But what separates them from being great is if they can also catch the ball out of the backfield and block, so we try to train them to do all three things equally… I think we have a talented group of running backs and the way things are now in the NFL, you have to be three and four deep at that position. I feel we have that.”
(Side note on Jeff Nixon: He was hired this offseason by Brian Daboll and has served as both an interim offensive coordinator and assistant head coach at the NFL level).
PREDICTIONS/CLOSING THOUGHTS: In my opinion, Saquon Barkley has two realistic options. He can accept a multi-year deal for less than he expected to receive by July 17th, or he can sign his 1-year Franchise tag by opening day. Sitting out a season for a 26-year old running back, who has only been relatively healthy in two of his five NFL seasons, does not seem a wise course of action. $10 million is $10 million. You can’t make that money up. The question is does he want to gamble, sign the tender, risk a lesser season and/or injury in 2023, and take another shot at the plate next offseason? My guess is no and that a deal will be done by 4PM on July 17. The realistic worst-case scenario is that Barkley throws a hissy fit by holding out of camp and the preseason, looking rusty in September, and then getting hurt.
Will Barkley ever regain his rookie-year explosion? Probably not. That next-level dynamic athleticism seems to be gone. That does not mean he can’t still break huge plays as a runner and receiver. He’s still darn shifty and fast. And he actually ran tougher and more physically in 2022 than he did as a rookie.
There is also something else Barkley had in his rookie season in 2018. That was Odell Beckham, Jr. Beckham’s presence opened things up for Barkley as a runner and a receiver. That’s been missing from the Giants’ offense for the past four years. If he stays healthy, Darren Waller should have a similar impact on Barkley in 2023. Defenses should not be able to crowd the line of scrimmage like they have. Moreover, if Parris Campbell, Jalin Hyatt, or Daniel Bellinger start to draw attention, Barkley’s job gets even easier. There will likely be some continued growing pains on the offensive line at left guard, center, and right tackle, but the arrow does seem to be pointing up on the offensive line. That obviously will help, particularly as the season progresses.
I suspect we have seen the last of Saquon getting 30 touches per game. But will he get 20 on a regular basis? There is an economic cost/benefit component to that discussion as well. On the other hand, fewer touches can extend Barkley’s career and enhance his future earning potential.
Keep an eye on Eric Gray. By season’s end, he may firmly entrench himself as the #2 back on the team. He’s got some Ahmad Bradshaw in him.
Final side note: Some Giants fans have gotten too angry and irrational about Saquon Barkley. He didn’t force the team to draft him with the #2 pick in 2018. The team did that. If you want to be pissed at someone, be pissed at the team. They didn’t even listen to trade offers. That said, Barkley had one of the most incredible rookie seasons in NFL history despite playing on a terrible team. He’s been a class act and a good teammate. The injuries are out of his control. And despite it all, he’s still been the best player on offense since drafted. And he knows it. That’s where his contract frustration is coming from, and it is completely understandable. I’m not advocating for the team to give him a huge contract, but fans may want to cut out some of the hostility. He’s a good guy and one of the best players in the NFL.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Saquon Barkley, Matt Breida, and Eric Gray (with Gary Brightwell and Jashaun Corbin being offered PS contracts).