It’s never too early to start talking NFL Draft, and for 49ers fans, it can’t come soon enough. For the first two draft profiles (one defensive and one offensive prospect) I will be writing this season, I ran a poll on Twitter asking fans who they wanted me to write about. Saquon Barkley won the offensive player poll and Minkah Fitzpatrick won the defensive player poll. Let’s start talking prospects.
The hype train for Saquon Barkley is at an all-time high right now. Many pundits are ranking him as the number one overall prospect in the draft right now, and the “future face of the NFL” or the “best running back prospect since (insert great RB here).” Barkley has backed up that hype throughout the first 10 games of the season, posting 1,846 all-purpose yards and 16 TDs. Of course, stats are not everything, so what makes Barkley so great?
Speed: As evidenced by his 4.33 40-yard dash, Barkley has the breakaway speed that is rare for a player his size. He hits holes with authority and has the ability to get into second gear to just blaze past defenses.
His run against Michigan from this season shows off this breakaway speed. In the wildcat formation, Barkley fakes the handoff to Trace McSorley. After a cutback, Barkley just sprints past the entire Michigan defense for a TD (clocked at 22.9 mph).
Power: Barkley is very explosive with his lower half. He makes good, quick moves in the open field. He also has great acceleration out of these cuts. Barkley is also tough to bring down. He runs through arm tackles and bounces off defenders who don’t wrap him up.
I mean this is one of the most impressive runs I have ever seen. Breaking an arm tackle from a defensive lineman he makes move after move to shake the USC defenders and go all the way for a TD.
Look at Barkley completely hurdle a defender, get hit in midair, but STILL land on his feet and keep going. These plays are a testament to how explosive Barkley’s lower body truly is and how difficult he is for defenders to bring down.
Vision: Barkley has a knack for always finding the creases in the blocking to gain extra yardage. He has the ability to diagnose where the defense will be and change his direction accordingly, as seen in the gif below against Indiana.
He hits the hole, then cuts back behind a blocker when he sees the defender coming down, then cuts again to eke out just an extra yard or so.
Pass Protection: An area where I really love to see running backs excel in is pass protection. Barkley has proven himself to be very dependable in pass pro, something I couldn’t say about him a couple years ago.
Here against Akron, he provides help to his center when taking on a blitzing linebacker. The duo keep McSorley from being sacked and allow him to throw from a clean pocket.
Here, Barkley takes a 6’3” 297-pound defensive lineman (blitzing from the linebacker position) one on one. He wins the battle by using a cut block to stop the defender in his tracks, allowing McSorley the time to get the throw off.
Receiving Ability: This area of Barkley’s game has been on display this season a lot more than his first two. He has already set career highs in receptions and receiving yards, 40 catches for 524 yards. Barkley runs clean routes from both the backfield and occasionally from the slot. He has solid hands, he has some dropped passes, but so does every player.
This play shows how Barkley can be used as a receiver to take advantage of obvious mismatches. Working out of the slot, Barkley is covered by a Michigan linebacker. He easily shakes the defender leaving him wide open down the field. Barkley had trouble catching the ball in the game against Michigan (he dropped a pass earlier in the game), but he showed good concentration to haul in his tipped ball.
As one would expect, with how deadly Barkley is when running the ball, he is a run after catch (RAC) monster as a receiver. We saw examples in some of the gifs above, but here’s one more.
Barkley shows takes a swing pass for 20 yards. He breaks the first arm tackle, then forces a missed tackle with a juke move before having to be brought down by 2 defenders.
Return Ability: In addition to his prowess as a runner and as a receiver, Barkley is also a deadly kick returner, averaging over 30 yards per return with 2 kickoffs returned for TDs.
Here is his 97-yard return TD against Ohio State. He goes untouched the entire way, and you cannot catch him in the open field, he’s too fast.
As you would expect with how long the “strengths” section was, the “weaknesses” portion of the piece will be short. In my opinion, Barkley doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. He is 100 percent NFL ready and would be the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
However, many pundits are already attacking Barkley’s production, particularly 7 games in which he was held to under 100 rushing yards. Now we saw this same exact argument last season with Fournette, “he doesn’t produce enough against the good teams.” I completely disagree with using this argument against Barkley. So much more goes into a running back’s stats than just how good he is. Blocking up front has to be good, the opposing teams have to respect your QB, and the scheme can’t be calling plays that take a long time to develop. Penn State does all these things: their offensive line isn’t exactly great by any means, McSorley is good, but teams still hone in on Barkley specifically, and many of PSU’s run plays take a long time to develop. Stop overthinking prospects solely because of their stats, rather look at why their stats are so low, but they’re held in high regard by the NFL.
How Does He Fit with the 49ers?
Now the most important part of the piece, will Barkley be the pick? There are many arguments against the 49ers taking Barkley at where they pick now (number 2 overall). Many say that number 2 overall is too high to take a running back, or that Kyle Shanahan doesn’t value running backs that high. There is also the possibility that Carlos Hyde is brought back on an extension, most likely keeping the 49ers from drafting Barkley.
In my opinion, Barkley should be the 49ers selection, barring a Hyde extension. He is a game-changing talent that would be a very valuable asset to Jimmy Garoppolo, or whoever starts for the 49ers in 2018 and beyond. He fits Shanahan’s style because he can operate both north-south and east-west, and he is a great receiver. If you have noticed throughout his career, Shanahan has loved to get his running backs involved in the passing game. Barkley fits the Shanahan system perfectly and 49ers fans should be ecstatic to see him in red and gold next season.