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Why did the Eagles buck their financial history to sign Saquon Barkley? Ask the 49ers

Once upon a time, in October 2022, the San Francisco 49ers traded draft picks in the second, third, fourth and fifth rounds to acquire a player whom they’d still need to pay big money.

This sixth-year pro wasn’t a quarterback. He wasn’t a pass rusher. He wasn’t even, by title or league tracking data, a receiver.

No, the 49ers decided to pony up all that draft capital and money to acquire running back Christian McCaffrey. In this economy.

McCaffrey arrived with an injury history, playing less than half of the team's games in each of two prior seasons. He arrived, too, with immense upside, as best showcased when he led the NFL in scrimmage yards (2,392) and touchdowns from scrimmage (19) in 2020.

The 49ers had to ask themselves: Could McCaffrey stay healthy? Could joining a team where he wasn’t the offense but one of many talented pieces in a well-schemed game plan empower him to thrive? What would McCaffrey look like with … a good offensive line?

Two NFC championship game appearances and one Super Bowl berth later, the 49ers feel plenty confident in their All-Pro answer.

And the Philadelphia Eagles have taken notice.

So with McCaffrey’s success squarely on their mind, the Eagles made a splash on Monday. As the league year turns this week, they will finalize a deal with Saquon Barkley.

Does Saquon Barkley make sense with Eagles’ philosophy?

To the NFL world, the move seemed surprising.

This was not a bargain bin move akin to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ cross-state acquisition of quarterback Russell Wilson.

The Eagles are scheduled to pay Barkley $37.75 million across the three-year life of his new contract, including $26 million guaranteed over the next two seasons, a source with knowledge of the deal confirmed to Yahoo Sports. Barkley’s de facto $13 million the next two seasons bests the $12 million per year the Green Bay Packers are giving Josh Jacobs (with $12.5 million guaranteed to Barkley’s $26 million), and the $8 million hauls Tony Pollard and D’Andre Swift are getting, according to multiple reports.

Barkley will become the most handsomely compensated running back in Eagles history, and the first to receive a top-of-market deal since DeMarco Murray netted $18 million at signing nine years ago and LeSean McCoy $20.76 million on a five-year deal that began in 2012.

Saquon Barkley will become the highest-paid running back in Eagles history when he signs his reported three-year, $37.75 million deal. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Saquon Barkley will become the highest-paid running back in Eagles history when he signs his reported three-year, $37.75 million deal. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Since then, the Eagles have emphatically not paid running backs.

They paid Swift $1.77 million last season for his 1,049 yards and five touchdowns rushing, and Miles Sanders $1.22 million for his 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing in 2022.

The Eagles have fronted a top-10 rushing attack each of the past four years despite investing less than 1% of the team’s salary cap at the position each campaign, per Spotrac.com.

In comparison, fellow NFC East teams in the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys each allocated more than 5% of their cap toward running backs last season, the Cowboys at 9.37% the year prior, per Spotrac.

Cap allocation is just one metric by which to measure investment as Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and Co. can maneuver the cap between years and absorb the hit at a more opportune time than its natural chronology. Still, signing Barkley to a contract whose raw value would quintuple the investment Philadelphia has recently made sends a message: The Eagles believe in Barkley and they believe strongly.

One executive with prior experience working in Philadelphia characterized the move in line with, rather than in opposition to, the Eagles way.

“I think they have some very disciplined principles when it comes to building through the lines,” the executive texted. “BUT they also have some high-end art-collector tendencies where they will pursue high-end talent and pay premiums as needed.”

So consider this contract a sign that the Eagles view Barkley as high-end talent — and needed.

What will Barkley’s Eagles role look like?

The Eagles’ rushing attack ranked eighth last season in production and fifth in scoring. Amazingly, that was a dip from two straight years as the top ground scoring attack, including No. 5 and No. 1 clips in total yardage.

But how much of that depended on the Eagles’ vaunted offensive line, their trademark quarterback sneak and, most recently, mobile quarterback Jalen Hurts?

Philadelphia knows the retirement of six-time All-Pro center Jason Kelce last week hurt its offensive core on and off the field. Who will now help Hurts elevate in the most important moments? Who will help carry the mantle of the ground game that the Eagles have long believed in, and new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has a history of maximizing?

Saquon Barkley headshot
Saquon Barkley
RB - PHI - #26
2023 - 2024 season
962
Yds
68.7
Y/G
3.9
YPC
6
TD

Enter Barkley, a key locker room voice and playmaker for the Giants the past six years. The Eagles view Barkley in a different stratosphere than backs who have recently become available.

“Just his versatility, the size, the speed, the ability to affect the game in the passing game and be a good blocker in pass pro,” one source familiar with the Eagles’ decision-making told Yahoo Sports by phone Monday night. “It's undeniable that a back of those guys’ caliber can be difference-makers. … Just the element of having a dynamic player like that who could do so many things other than just run the ball.”

It’s that same “more than the run game” argument that sold the 49ers on McCaffrey, who averaged 110 scrimmage yards per game in his first season in San Francisco and 126.4 in his latest. McCaffrey contributed seven receiving touchdowns and 564 receiving yards to a league-leading 2,023 yards and 21 touchdowns from scrimmage this past season.

The Eagles hope a healthy Barkley will follow that blueprint next season.

Such an outcome would be a best-case scenario, but Barkley led the league in scrimmage yards with 2,028 his rookie year in addition to 15 total touchdowns. And as recently as 2022, his last year with consistency at quarterback, Barkley collected 1,650 yards and 10 scores.

Why not now? Why not in Philadelphia?

The Eagles understand Barkley’s injury history but point to the 43 healthy games Barkley has played the past three seasons compared to McCaffrey’s 40. Offensive line upgrades impact running back health.

So with Barkley’s ceiling alluring and his health bill clean enough, the Eagles bring him back to his home state of Pennsylvania. He’ll stay in a division he’s spent the last six years learning. Twice a year, Barkley will play the Giants, who drafted him second overall in 2018 — and then declined to pay him a second multi-year contract.

Don’t think the Eagles overlooked the power of revenge.

“Philly’s a chip-on-their-shoulder city,” the source familiar with the Eagles’ decision-making said. “Kind of thrive off that.”