Giants letting Saquon Barkley go to Eagles signaled a new strategy, but will they regret his departure?

Monday’s legal tampering period began in frustrating fashion for the Giants, with news that star running back Saquon Barkley had agreed to sign a three-year deal with one of their divisional rivals.

The Philadelphia Eagles will sign Barkley to a deal worth over $12 million per year, putting an end to the two-time Pro Bowler’s six-year stint with New York.

The 2018 draft was always going to mark the start of a defining era for New York football. The Giants held the second overall pick and opted to draft Barkley instead of a quarterback, leaving their crosstown rivals, the Jets, to take Sam Darnold with the third selection.

The past six seasons haven’t gone well for either franchise, but the Giants did at least make the playoffs in 2022 before taking a step back last season. Barkley’s performance during that time was unquestionably excellent, though.

He rushed for 1,000 or more yards three times, caught at least 40 passes five times, surpassed 100 yards rushing 17 times, and scored 49 touchdowns.

However, he did miss almost the entire 2020 season with a knee injury and then struggled to produce the following year as he recovered from that injury.

When Barkley was drafted, some analysts questioned the logic of using such a high pick on a running back in an era when it’s widely believed that it’s not difficult to find cheaper options who can produce at a high level as long as the blocking in front of them is good.

Barkley, however, added extra value with his all-round abilities. He wasn’t just a dynamic runner, capable of carrying the load and creating extra yards after contract, because he was also a pass-catching threat and an excellent pass protector.

Jan 7, 2024; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) breaks a tackle by Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Zach Cunningham (52) for a rushing touchdown during the first half at MetLife Stadium.

The downside to Barkley’s success has manifested itself over the past few seasons as he came to the end of his rookie deal and then looked to cash in with a long-term one. He played in 2022 under the fifth-year option and then, having not wanted to play in 2023 under the franchise tag, eventually agreed to a one-year pact that gave him an upfront signing bonus and some additional incentives.

The fact is that the Giants were reluctant to make the kind of long-term commitment to Barkley that he was seeking, and ultimately got from the Eagles. They instead pivoted to Devin Singletary for about half as much money as the new contract for Barkley.

On the face of it, this could pay off for the Giants. Singletary might not produce as much as Barkley has in recent years, but he has consistently rushed for over 800 yards per season and caught over 30 passes in recent years -- so he has a chance to at least approximate most of Barkley’s numbers for a fraction of the price, enabling the Giants to invest the money saved elsewhere.

However, Barkley showed last season that he’s a player who can single-handedly elevate an offense. In the three games he missed, the Giants went 0-3 and scored just 31 points. Giants running backs combined to rush for just 113 yards on 47 carries in those three games, but then Barkley returned from injury and rushed for more than 75 yards in six straight games.

Barkley was regularly kept in check early on in games, but New York kept feeding him and he would nearly always start breaking some runs later on, as the Giants were much more competitive in the second half of the year.

Perhaps the biggest negative in all of this for the Giants is where Barkley ended up. They were already playing catch-up with an Eagles team that has posted a winning record in three straight seasons and almost won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2023 season. Adding Barkley to the mix just widens the gap between the teams and probably makes the Eagles the favorites to win the NFC East again, with a chance to win the Super Bowl.

The Giants and their fans will lament Barkley’s departure, but it perhaps signifies something of a reset for the team after the disappointment of last season.

Trading for Brian Burns was the first move toward being able to lean on their defense while they look to rebuild the offense without Barkley in hopes of being competitive again.