There’s an endearing innocence that’s accompanied Penn State running back Saquon Barkley‘s rise to one of the most dynamic players in college football. He entered this summer more excited by the notion of moving off-campus than auditioning for the NFL draft. After all, he’d never lived in his own apartment and signed a lease before. Barkley’s idea of a big night out? Eating chicken wings at Applebee’s with his old roommate, Andre Robinson. If they splurge, they may end up at Texas Roadhouse.
After cementing himself as an elite NFL prospect by compiling 306 total yards and three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl last year, Barkley hasn’t glanced too far ahead. A true junior, Barkley asked running backs coach Charles Huff if the Nittany Lions would hold a scholarship for him if he decided to come back for his senior season next year. “His mind is very present,” Huff told Yahoo Sports this week. “He’s not an idiot, he knows he has an opportunity. But he barely talks about the NFL. It’s who he is.”
But just because the NFL rarely comes up around Barkley doesn’t mean that the league isn’t talking about him. Yahoo Sports polled a half-dozen NFL front-office types, coaches and analysts about Barkley, and there’s a rousing debate around the league as to whether he’s a better prospect than Ezekiel Elliott when he entered the draft out of Ohio State two years ago.
Both Elliott and former LSU star Leonard Fournette ended up the No. 4 pick in the past two drafts, bucking a trend of NFL franchises not putting a premium value on tailbacks. Elliott justified the pick by leading the NFL in rushing as a rookie. Fournette rushed for 100 yards in his debut. Could Barkley join them in that rarefied NFL draft air?
Yahoo spoke to two NFL scouts who’ve studied both Elliott and Barkley extensively. (The comparison between those two is cleaner, as scouts from that region don’t tend to overlap with the SEC.) Barkley is considered the same caliber of prospect as Elliott, with only slight variances in how the scouts view him. “He’s the best running back prospect I’ve seen in at least four years,” said a scout who asked to remain anonymous. “He’s a different kind of dude, man. If he’s not a top-10 pick, I’d be shocked. Like shocked.”
We’ll call him Scout A, and he gives Barkley the edge on Elliott as a prospect for a few reasons. (And he thinks highly of Elliott, considering him one of the two or three best tailbacks in the NFL.)
“Saquon Barkley is better than Zeke, he’s faster than Zeke and has more twitch,” Scout A said. “Saquon Barkley is a different guy with an extra gear. He’ll never get caught from behind. Zeke doesn’t get caught often, but he can.”
Barkley brings the same versatility that Elliott does in the pass game, but all the scouts and executives polled admitted that Barkley isn’t in the same class as Elliott in pass protection. (Elliott was on the kickoff team his freshman year at Ohio State, which scouts loved because it showed his toughness.)
In Scout A’s eyes, Barkley’s slight edge as a prospect comes from explosiveness, lateral quickness and cutting ability. Barkley has been timed as fast as a 4.33 at Penn State, which is a transcendent time for a tailback. Scout A predicts Barkley plays at around a 4.43, which he calls an “extra step” over the 4.49 Elliott plays at. “I’m not going to say he’s going to come to the league and rip it up like Zeke,” Scout A said. “Zeke went to the best situation he could have possibly gone to with that offensive line. But even if Saquon Barkley went somewhere with a bad offensive line, he’s going to make plays.”
Scout B calls it a close race between Barkley and Elliott as a player. “A lot of guys like Saquon more than Zeke,” he said. “He’s really, really good. But I thought Zeke was better.”
Scout B’s determination comes down to Elliott’s power at the line of scrimmage. He says that Barkley is faster going “zero to 40,” but Elliott’s burst is better “zero to 10.” Scout B adds: “There’s a little more pick-up and explosion on contact at the line of scrimmage to power through tackles. There was a clear delineation there.”
Scout B went on to be very complimentary of Barkley, noting his “eight-pack” of abs, cut body and running away from players in the USC game. He says that he’ll give Barkley the rest of the year to see if he can pass Zeke on the field. Scout B likes Elliott more as a player, but prefers Barkley as a prospect.
As with most programs, these scouts deal primarily with the strength coach for background information. Penn State’s Dwight Galt has more than three decades of experience, and the program has told scouts they’ll fully discuss Barkley when the time is appropriate. But Galt has told scouts there’s nothing to worry about. Galt’s message: “[Saquon’s] weakest attribute for you guys will be on film. Nothing else is going to be a problem. He’s a better person than he is a football player, and he’s our best football player.”
Elliott’s off-field issues in college and the NFL have been well chronicled, as the litigation around his looming six-game suspension over a domestic violence case has been one of the biggest NFL stories this year.
And that’s why as a hypothetical draft pick, not just as a player comparison, Scout B would end up selecting Barkley over Elliott. “I’d rather have Barkley over Zeke because of the character stuff,” Scout B said. “If it was just a player? Zeke is a better player than Saquon Barkley is.”
With back-to-back tailbacks picked in the top five of the NFL draft, the league is showing signs of a running back renaissance. After years of the NFL regarding tailbacks as interchangeable parts, the high-end, three-down tailback has begun to re-emerge as a coveted commodity. (The last run of three consecutive years of top five tailbacks picks came from 1999 through 2001 – Edgerrin James, Jamal Lewis and LaDainian Tomlinson).
Barkley, who is 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, flashes a rare blend of strength, speed and versatility. Along with the 4.33 he ran at Penn State, his 32 reps of 225 would have been an impressive performance for a defensive lineman at the NFL combine. Another NFL executive, who spoke to Yahoo Sports on condition of anonymity, praised his vision, ability to jump cut and absorb hits.
“He’s like tackling a Coke machine,” said Mike Lombardi, the former Browns general manager who dissects college prospects on his “GM Street” Podcast for The Ringer. “The Adrian Peterson-style back won’t be back, the one-down back won’t always be drafted high. The three-down back will.”
There’s certainly some weaknesses, as the NFL would like to see him a little taller, pass protect more and play out of a more traditional offense. Barkley is being featured more as a pass catcher this season, as he’s caught 11 passes – two for touchdowns – as Penn State has rolled past Akron, Pittsburgh and Georgia State. Barkley is on pace to shatter the 28 catches he caught in PSU’s 14 games last year.
Barkley’s numbers this season are impressive – 8.1 yards per carry, five touchdowns – and he’ll have his first showcase Big Ten game at Iowa on Saturday night. Amid a sleepy college football Saturday schedule, Barkley has a chance to enhance his stature against a run defense that ranks No. 23 nationally.
The other new wrinkle for Barkley comes in kick returns, a role that’s evolved from a cameo (three last year) to a feature role (every game this season). Huff, who is also Penn State’s special teams coordinator, said Penn State is following the model of how Stanford used Christian McCaffrey last season. Huff said he’s been “appalled” by the number of people who’ve insinuated that the kickoff is the most dangerous play in football. “We don’t have an issue with it,” he said, noting Penn State coaches studied the history of injury risks on kicks. “We were looking at ways to get the ball in his hands more.”
As Barkley continues to power through would-be-tacklers, the debate of his potential compared to Elliott will provide a backdrop to the season. Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo considers Elliott and Barkley different backs, pointing out that Zeke would anticipate hits and run through them. Barkley’s vision allows him to anticipate them and avoid them.
As Penn State attempts to repeat as Big Ten champions, the caliber of comparisons for Barkley speaks to the vastness of his potential. “I would say he’s close to being in that class,” said a coach who has faced both Elliott and Barkley. “If he continues once we get into Big Ten play, he’ll work himself into that category.”
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