Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and the NFL Draft: Where the PSU star ranks among the nation’s top draft-eligible RBs
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley celebrates his touchdown catch with tight end Mike Gesicki during the third quarter of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Ca. on Jan. 2, 2017. USC beat the Nittany Lions, 52-49. Joe Hermitt | email@example.com
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is getting early attention as a top prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft, which is still a long way off. These “way-too-early” projections are often littered with inaccuracies, unforeseen rises and falls from top prospects and an impossible-to-know order of picks that won’t be determined for at least seven months.
A rising junior, Barkley has all the physical tools to be an impact player and offensive centerpiece at the next level. He has a rare combination of size, speed, power and elusiveness, and that skill set shows in his frequent highlight-reel runs. Barkley can break through arm tackles, outrun defensive backs and make any defender miss by going through or around him in the open field.
“The question for Barkley is, can he be an offensive centerpiece?,” Optimum Scouting analyst Eric Galko said. “I think he can, but it’s important to consider that because running backs are still devalued. If you’re viewed as a centerpiece of the offense, as a catalyst for what the offense wants to do and build your offense around that, that’s when a guy is a top-10 or top-15 pick.”
The devaluation of running backs at the next level is a real thing, but there’s a contrast between how good runners are perceived compared to ELITE runners. The guys who have proven they can be dynamic, three-down workhorses at the next level are still capable of going off the board early in the first round. Four running backs have been selected in the top 10 picks in the past three NFL drafts.
Can Barkley be the fifth? Time will tell, but early projections suggest he will be. Galko has Barkley pegged as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft in his first mock draft for The Sporting News. A consensus has emerged, top-10 pick or not, that Barkley is special enough to go in the first round. His package of skills are complemented by universal praise for his character and work ethic.
“I think Barkley can [be a centerpiece],” Galko said. “His ability out of the backfield as a pass-catcher really adds to that. I think he’s a really versatile runner. He can run between the tackles. He can finish on the perimeter. He evades arm tackles. He finishes through contact at the second level. All those things are really impressive.”
The top returning RB for the 2017 season? [?]
That honor goes to @PennStateFball’s Saquon Barkley (@saquonb21). #WeAre pic.twitter.com/OAaKGQZPav
— Campus Insiders (@CampusInsiders) February 21, 2017
Barkley will have his share of competition for both the 2018 and ’19 NFL drafts with a number of high-profile running backs eligible for both. LSU’s Derrius Guice is the biggest name to contend with Barkley, but Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Florida’s Jordan Scarlett and Washington’s Myles Gaskin are all capable of pushing Barkley and Guice.
Here’s a look at writer Dustin Hockensmith’s rankings of the top 15 draft-eligible running backs in the country.