If Giants want Saquon Barkley back, what that deal looks like could set tone for this spring's RB market

INDIANAPOLIS — The New York Giants' contract situation with Saquon Barkley is starting to feel like a replay of where these parties were at this point last year.

The record-setting $30 million increase in the salary cap has teams adjusting their strategies for the offseason, which may result in the Giants being able to retain the services of one of their most notable players. When Giants general manager Joe Schoen spoke at his podium session at the NFL scouting combine, he said, “I think the world of Saquon and I still think he can play. My value for Saquon hasn't changed.”

There’s an interesting opportunity here for Schoen to put his money where his mouth is and bring Barkley back, if it makes sense for both sides.

Barkley didn’t have a great season for the Giants, but to put that all on him is not fair. According to Pro Football Reference, Barkley’s rushing success rate of 40.1% was the lowest mark of his career since his rookie year (39.8%) and was a far drop from the mark of 47.5% that he achieved in 2022. The injury to quarterback Daniel Jones, injuries to the offensive line and an ineffective passing game dampened the opportunities for Barkley to do what he does best: be one of the most explosive weapons in the game. It was an unfortunate situation for him, but it does shed some light on the larger contract issues that running backs face.

Giants GM Joe Schoen said he
Giants GM Joe Schoen said he "thinks the world of" running back Saquon Barkley on Tuesday at the NFL combine. But will they reach a deal without a second straight franchise tag? (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

There are a lot of extenuating circumstances that determine success or failure for running backs, even for great runners like Barkley. Some teams have decided to put their cap resources into other positions that can facilitate great running games instead of investing in running backs themselves. This is the issue that Barkley found himself with last spring when the Giants opted to hit him with the franchise tag instead of negotiating a long-term deal with their star running back. This is also the issue that multiple running backs are going to have, including the same players from last offseason.

Barkley isn’t the only talented or productive running back who has a contract situation up in the air. Derrick Henry, Austin Ekeler, Tony Pollard and Josh Jacobs are currently on the brink of being free agents despite adding a lot of value to their teams over the past few years. Barkley, Jacobs and Pollard were hit with the franchise tag last offseason. Henry and Ekeler have expiring deals. This leaves all of these guys in the same situation to varying degrees (although it appears that Henry will actually have a real market as a free agent) where they’ll be gauging the market to see exactly how much teams value running backs.

As far as Barkley goes, his team’s general manager has already stated that he would be open to his return as long as the money works out OK, which should be a deal that would be easy for the Giants to work with considering the increase in cap space. According to Spotrac, the Giants currently rank 13th in available cap space with $38.9 million to spend. Even a two-year deal, at this point, could fall in the range of $20 million of total value — keeping Barkley in line with the dwindling franchise tag numbers for running backs. If the Giants decide keeping Barkley is worth a new deal, it would be manageable from a cap space perspective.

The Giants probably should consider the idea of retaining Barkley just because their offense doesn’t have a whole lot of firepower right now, especially at wide receiver. Jones or a potential rookie quarterback under center would need more around them than the Giants currently have. Keeping Barkley around would be beneficial, even if there is a chance that his best days are behind him. The Giants would have one of the worst running back rooms in the league without Barkley, which would be damaging to an offense that can’t really afford it.

Now the hard part comes for the Giants and Barkley — figuring out a price and contract that works for them. A second franchise tag would cost around $13 million, but a contract extension would be a little less expensive than that. Regardless, Barkley and the Giants will set a bit of a precedent on how to handle a veteran back that’s already been franchise tagged once, and potentially open a pathway for veteran running backs to get paid.