Greg Cosell's draft analysis: Saquon Barkley is a great prospect, but not without some faults
Saquon Barkley is a high-level prospect with all of the running and receiving traits you want in today’s NFL back.
However, the Penn State running back’s tape reveals some tendencies he’ll have to work on to be a star in the NFL. Or, perhaps those tendencies are just part of his playing DNA.
In looking at draft prospects last year, we looked at strengths and then weaknesses. Since we are all aware of Barkley’s fantastic college career and impressive combine, I thought it might be worth looking first at what Barkley doesn’t do quite as well.
When I watched Barkley on tape, especially in 2016, I thought he needs to develop a stronger downhill mentality as a runner. He doesn’t always run with the power you’d expect from someone his size (233 pounds). Getting the tough yards inside is demanded in the NFL from a foundation back.
Barkley is clearly a talented runner, but at times he showed a tendency to bounce runs outside. That leaves yards on the field and isn’t generally going to work in the NFL. He improved on that last season, though it’s something worth noting. Barkley made a lot of big gains in college by bouncing it outside, but it’s not as easy against faster NFL defenders. Barkley’s style often resembles a scat-back, which is unusual for someone as big as he is.
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about. On the first offensive play of the 2016 Big Ten championship game, Barkley’s instinct is to bounce this run outside.
You see that again in a game against Ohio State. He immediately bounces outside to the right on a second-and-2 instead of taking what’s available — which NFL backs often have to do — and he’s dropped for a loss.
Here’s one more, from last season’s Fiesta Bowl, where you can see Barkley bounce it outside. Although he was better at not looking to bounce runs outside last season, it still showed up sometimes.
Barkley has fantastic skills, but if there’s a concern it’s that he did not consistently run competitively and get the hard yards. I did not see many highly competitive runs in the 2016 tape, and I also had some questions about his vision. He needs to develop a stronger downhill mentality, because that is necessary in the NFL from a foundation back. To his credit he was a more decisive downhill runner in 2017, hitting the point of attack more often.
Barkley is a better overall runner than Leonard Fournette, for example, but he’s not the finisher Fournette is. Barkley is a run-to-daylight runner more than a pure power runner, despite his size. He’s stronger in his body more than he is powerful as a runner. Being a punishing runner is not his style.
Barkley is a high-level prospect and there’s not much to pick apart in his game. But if there’s a concern, that’s it.
When you watch Barkley on tape, you see that he checks a lot of boxes you like to see in a runner.
Barkley has fluid lateral quickness and change of direction. He’s a loose and natural runner with quick feet and excellent short-area burst. He has a smooth slashing style with almost no wasted motion. At times he also showed outstanding patience and second- and third-reaction quickness. Although, as stated above, I don’t like to see backs who regularly bounce runs outside, Barkley does have the burst and speed to get to the perimeter and run away from the defense.
It’s a highlight many will remember, but a 79-yard touchdown in the Rose Bowl against USC two seasons ago really was Barkley at his best. You see his quick feet, change of direction, ability to make defenders miss, short area burst and long speed. Even if you’ve seen it before, it’s worth watching again.
Another touchdown from that USC game shows off some of Barkley’s best traits. Watch the short-area explosion and acceleration to run away from the defense on this 24-yard score:
This 44-yard run against Iowa shows some incredible leg strength to stop, start, burst and accelerate. Barkley has a natural power and suddenness to his movement due to outstanding leg strength — at times Barkley looks like Barry Sanders with his stop-and-start balance and acceleration — and you see it in this run.
There’s no question you see fantastic traits from Barkley. He also has natural receiving skills out of the backfield. He was utilized by Penn State as a vertical receiver, and he showed good, soft hands and excellent body control. Barkley is not the same level of a receiver as Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints, but he is a plus player in that area. Although Barkley will need to become more consistently competitive as a pass protector, in addition to learning better technique, he’s a true every-down back who can do it all.
Because of his size and speed combination, he’ll run with a lot of velocity and he also has the agility and balance to make defenders miss in space. You can see why he’ll be selected early in the 2018 draft.
TRANSITION TO NFL
If Barkley continues to become a more decisive downhill runner, which he showed in 2017, he has many of the traits you want in a running back. He has a little bit of a big-play mentality that needs to be channeled better so that he more consistently attacks downhill decisively and gets the tough yards demanded in the NFL. Once that is harnessed, he has high-level running traits. And running downhill will enhance his velocity, explosion and power.
If Barkley continues to show a north-south mindset, he can be a dominant runner from his rookie year on. He has all the skills to be an impact player from Day 1.
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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Before the NFL draft, Cosell will join Yahoo Sports to share his observations on some of the top prospects.
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