After the NFL scouting combine, it seems that you’d find a consensus on one issue: Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is the best player in this draft.
Something you wouldn’t find agreement on is whether that should make Barkley the top pick of the draft.
Last week, even before his workouts, a scout told Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel that Barkley was the best prospect, any position, in the past 10 years (“Best I’ve seen [in the] past decade,” he said). And then Barkley had a combine for the ages. Not that anyone was questioning Barkley’s athleticism, but he helped his stock last week, and it was already high to begin with.
Penn State RB Saquon Barkley at 2018 Combine:
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) March 2, 2018
Not surprisingly, after the combine Barkley is “firmly in the mix” for the first overall pick to the Cleveland Browns, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
Of course, there’s a rub. The Browns have the first pick, and they need a quarterback (something that has been the case since they came back to the NFL in 1999). They’ve already traded the picks that turned into Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson. You can’t come into a draft with the first and fourth picks, with four intriguing quarterback prospects, and not fix that problem.
If the Browns don’t draft Barkley at No. 1, it’s far from a guarantee he’d be there at No. 4. The New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts draft second and third overall, and both are deficient at running back. If the Browns want Barkley, the only way to guarantee getting him is taking him with the first pick. There are some pros and cons to taking Barkley first:
The case for Barkley with the first pick: While there’s plenty of talk about running back being devalued, it’s obviously nice to have a good one. Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Kareem Hunt and Le’Veon Bell, just to name a few, are every-down players who have added a ton of value to their teams. Barkley is a far better prospect than any of them were.
The Browns are in a rare spot where they can draft Barkley and also get a top quarterback with the fourth pick. There are four quarterbacks who will likely go in the first 10-15 picks: Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen. If the Browns believe three of them are comparable — and there doesn’t seem to be much separation among the four at this point — they could have take Barkley first and are guaranteed one of those three quarterbacks with the fourth pick. The last running back to go first overall is Ki-Jana Carter in 1995, so it would be rare for Barkley to go first. But he’s a rare, generational talent. He could help lift a moribund Browns franchise out of the basement. While there are cheaper options at running back, nobody has the potential impact Barkley could have.
As Thamel wrote, the Browns have passed on other transformational talents. They could feel they can’t afford to pass on this one.
The case for not taking Barkley with the first pick: Let’s say the Browns like only two quarterbacks and are lukewarm on the other two top prospects. The Giants could go with a quarterback at No. 2. The Colts would be smart to trade down — perhaps to the Broncos or Jets at No. 5 or 6 — and another quarterback could then go No. 3. If the Browns draft Barkley, then see the two quarterbacks they like go No. 2 and 3 … that’s an absolute failure.
This is also a very good running back group, and the Browns have a lot of picks. They also have the 33rd and 35th picks early in the second round. Backs in this class like Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Ronald Jones could all be impact starters too. None of them are Barkley, but any of them could be available in the second round.
“I think at running back you’re going to see at all levels that you’re going to have some high-end players and I think you’re still going to see some really good players at the running back position come out of this draft third, fourth, fifth, sixth round,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said.
The Browns could feel an intense need to get their potential franchise quarterback No. 1, something they’ve needed for almost two decades. Maybe they get lucky and Barkley is there with the fourth pick. Or they take another impact player, like Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick or NC State pass rusher Bradley Chubb, with the fourth pick and then get a new starting running back in later rounds. They wouldn’t be able to find a pass rusher like Chubb or a defensive back nearly as good as Fitzpatrick in the second round.
It’s an interesting decision, and one that will be second-guessed if it doesn’t work. Either the Browns will be the idiots who took a running back No. 1 for the first time in 23 years and it didn’t work out, or they’ll be the team that missed out on the next Adrian Peterson. After two great seasons at Penn State and an incredible performance at the combine, it’s obvious Barkley is a special talent.
Now the question is, do the Browns take him first overall?
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