Saquon Barkley was going to sign the largest contract ever given to a running back in NFL history, and it was probably going to happen before the 2021 season opened. The Giants knew it was coming, they welcomed it, and they were prepared to open talks after the season.
Now all of that will almost certainly have to wait – if it ever even happens at all.
“He’s still going to get paid and it’ll still be a lot – as long as he shows he’s healthy,” said one NFL agent. “The timing, the amount … it’s all just a little more complicated now.”
The complication, of course, happened on Sunday when the 23-year-old Barkley tore his ACL, ending his third NFL season in Week 2. It’s not insignificant that it was the second straight year he suffered a serious injury early in the season, joining the high ankle sprain that cost him three games and limited his effectiveness for a couple of months last year, too.
By the time this season ends, Barkley will have only played in 65 percent of his team’s games in his three-year career. By the time he plays in his next game he’ll have been out of action almost a full calendar year. And that’s if he’s ready by Opening Day, 2021 – not a lock, since the general range of recovery time for a torn ACL is 8-12 months.
Some take longer to fully recover. Some never fully recover at all.
But assume that Barkley, who prides himself on being something of a physical freak of nature, can fully recover – the way NFL running backs like Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and Frank Gore have done before him. He could still be considered an injury risk now. His potential won’t seem as unlimited as it once was.
So will the Giants still want to invest heavily in his future? And if so, when?
“The obvious answer is they have to wait,” said one NFL executive. “You can’t pay a guy $18 million per year and guarantee him $40-50 million without knowing if he’s all the way back. The good thing for the Giants – if there is any good out of this – is that they have time. There’s no rush to get that done.”
The Giants do have plenty of time to address this since Barkley’s rookie deal runs through the 2022 season (assuming the Giants pick up his fifth-year option, which they will as long as he can still run). That gives them two years of control, and after that they can add a third by using the franchise tag, essentially keeping him with the Giants through 2023. Their plan, according to a team source, was to open negotiations on a contract extension after the season – the first time players from the 2018 draft are allowed to renegotiate their deals. But they were in no rush to get it done because they knew they weren’t up against a clock.
After his injury, they now have to be patient. Barkley’s recovery will be far more important to them than any contract talks. And there would seem to be no risk that Barkley will have any problem with that, either. “Nobody ever wants to wait for their money,” another NFL agent said, “but you can’t complain or hold out when you’re not in a position of strength.”
“His focus,” the agent said, “has to be solely on getting healthy first. Then he can turn his attention to his next deal.”
And assuming Barkley fully recovers and gets back on the field, there are two ways that next deal could play out, based on conversations with agent sources around the league. Barkley could seek to extend his deal sooner, perhaps at a lesser price, choosing some financial security over a blockbuster pay day. In that case, he’d be hoping the Giants will bet on him at a relative bargain price, before he proves definitively he can be the same player, so they don’t have to break the bank for him later.
Or – and most people agree this is more likely – he can wait and bet on himself so he can capitalize on his next big year.
The first option doesn’t make a lot of sense for Barkley, since his four-year, $31 million rookie deal is fully guaranteed and that doesn’t include the fifth-year option which will likely be near $10 million. So he’s already basically guaranteed about $40 million over five years – which is more than any running back other than Ezekiel Elliott has ever gotten in a contract.
So in a sense, he’s been paid like an elite running back already. Why not wait to see if he can prove he’s worth even more?
“Unless his knee is destroyed, they’ll pick up that fifth-year option – and if his knee is that bad, they’re not going to give him a big contract anyway,” one of the NFL agents said. “So with all that in the bank, I’d tell him to bet on yourself. Make the comeback. Show you can still play. Become an all-pro or something close to it again.
“Then make them pay.”
It’s possible if the Giants see Barkley rounding into form and they’re comfortable that his knee is holding up, they’d even try to strike quickly. After all, there is a lot of financial uncertainty with the NFL expected to lose $3 billion in revenue this season. And for the top players, prices only ever go up. If Barkley gets off to a good start in 2021, he could get the Giants to open talks almost as soon as he gets back.
“And really, his agent will probably talk to them this offseason anyway,” the agent said. “It’ll set a tone and set a stage for negotiations later on.”
As for how much a healthy Barkley would be worth, it’s impossible to even guess. The benchmark for running backs is the $16 million per year that Christian McCaffrey recently got from the Carolina Panthers. Most thought Barkley was looking at about $18 million per year – perhaps five year, $90 million with an Elliott-like $50 million guaranteed.
Whether a deal like that will still be there depends on everything from Barkley’s health, to the Giants’ belief that he can stay healthy and become the player he was, to the financial state of the NFL after they get through the COVID-19 pandemic. He could be looking at a similar deal. Or it might work better for both sides to work on something shorter, too.
“If you look at these running back deals, most of them are basically two-three-year deals anyway,” one NFL agent said. “After the second or third year, there are no more guarantees and the cap numbers make it reasonable for teams to cut them. Teams want that so they have an out. Players don’t mind it either because they get money up front and maybe another shot at free agency later.
“So if there’s uncertainty about Saquon, maybe a two-year deal will turn out better for everyone involved.”
Maybe it will. But first things first. Barkley has to get healthy. That’s the most important thing right now.
His long-term financial future can wait.
“Without the health part, none of this matters,” said the NFL executive. “My guess is that next contract is the furthest thing from his mind right now.”