Pat Leonard: Can Saquon Barkley rescue expensive NFL running backs in 2020?

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NEW YORK — Saquon Barkley’s second NFL contract will move toward the front burner for the Giants and their dynamic running back this time next year.

The Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott signed a market leading six-year, $90 million deal last fall entering his fourth NFL season. Carolina Panthers stud Christian McCaffrey should cash in this spring going into his fourth year.

And then in 2021, Barkley will be up as the latest first-round RB centerpiece who does it all and soon will need to be paid like it. So this makes the 2020 NFL season critical for both Barkley, 23, and the Giants.

Barkley needs a big season to carry maximum leverage into year four. And the Giants, by making Barkley a focal point, will drive up his value as long as he produces and stays healthy.

But that will force them to spend the kind of big money on a position that recently is not paying consistent dividends for NFL teams. So the question is:

Will Barkley buck the recent trend of expensive backs whose contracts have become more burdens than blessings? And will he do so in the face of long Vegas odds, opening as a 100-to-1 MVP candidate on BetOnline compared to 50-to-1 opening odds a year ago?

Four of the five highest-paid running backs by average annual contract value are rumored to be on the trading block or on the verge of being cut.

Behind Elliott ($15 million), the Rams’ Todd Gurley ($14.3 million), the Jets’ Le’Veon Bell ($13.1 million) and the Cardinals’ David Johnson ($13 million) are all possible trade chips this spring.

The Falcons’ Devonta Freeman ($8.25 million) is on the verge of being released. And the sixth-highest paid back is Barkley ($7.7 million average), the former No. 2 overall pick and 2018 offensive rookie of the year whose Giants are 9-23 in his two seasons.

This comes on the heels of the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon unsuccessfully holding out for a blockbuster contract entering his fifth year this past season.

Drafting a running back in the first round can augment a team in the short term but hasn’t proven to sustain success.

Five running backs were drafted in the first round between 2015-17: Gurley and Gordon in 2015, Elliott in 2016, and Leonard Fournette and McCaffrey in 2017. Four of the five head coaches of those teams have been fired since those draft picks were made, and the Jaguars fired Tom Coughlin, the VP of football operations when Fournette was picked.

Gurley’s Rams reached the Super Bowl in 2018. Fournette’s Jaguars got to the AFC Championship Game in 2018. And Sony Michel (31st overall, 2019) helped the Patriots win a Super Bowl as a rookie. So it isn’t like a premier runner can’t help.

But the surrounding situation has to be optimal. Barkley is already on his second head coach, for example, and needs the Giants to invest smartly around him; not just in him.

Of the eight highest-paid RBs by average annual contract value, only one made the playoffs in 2019. And that was the Niners’ Jerick McKinnon (No. 7), who did not play due to injury. His Super Bowl-bound team’s leading rusher was Raheem Mostert, a former undrafted free agent and the 24th-highest paid RB in the league.

Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) measures a player’s value per play. And the website Football Outsiders shows that seven of the top 10 DVOA running backs’ teams made the playoffs in 2019. But only three of those backs were among the NFL’s 15 highest-paid: Ingram (2nd), Elliott (4th) and McCaffrey (5th).

The other seven included two undrafted free agents (Mostert and the Ravens’ Gus Edwards), a former sixth-round pick (Saints’ Latavius Murray) and two fifth-rounders (Eagles’ Jordan Howard; Packers’ Aaron Jones). Also in the top 10 are a third-round pick (Cardinals’ Kenyan Drake) and second-rounder (Vikings’ Dalvin Cook).

A running back’s value is contingent upon a lot of other variables and outside factors, including fit. The Cardinals’ Johnson, for example, could be extremely productive for another team once traded next season; Arizona simply saw Drake as a better fit for Kliff Kingsbury’s new offense.

The bottom line, though, is that right now more teams with expensive running backs are looking to move on than they are thriving. It will be intriguing to see if Barkley and the Giants will be able to go against the grain in all facets: by winning, by paying Barkley his due, and by sustaining success long-term at the same time.

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It baffles me that the NFL Players’ Association is even considering an increase to a 17-game regular season in the next collective bargaining agreement, which the league hopes to finalize soon but whose negotiations could drag toward the current deal’s March 2021 expiration and beyond.

Concussions and retired player benefits are among two consistently debated player issues for good reason. The NFL settled a $1 billion concussion lawsuit as recently as 2018. And yet the players are willing to consider an owners’ proposal to add a game to each league year starting somewhere between 2021 and 2023?

Don’t get me wrong: plenty of players oppose it. There is a chance the NFLPA simply has left it on the table in negotiations to obtain other concessions and plans to put its foot down on the 17th game late.

And there are a ton of variables to this negotiation. They include reported NFL owner concessions to the players on revenue split, better benefits, the drug policy, higher minimum salaries and additional concessions on offseason/training camp regulations, among others.

A shortening of the preseason to three games at least seems to be likely. The NFL’s TV partners would prefer to buy an extra regular season game than a fourth preseason game, and the NFLPA gets a win in the player safety column knocking off the final exhibition.

It’s not a net win in the safety column, however, if the players are adding a regular season game to take that preseason game’s place. This was obvious the second the idea was initially floated. Again, maybe it’s being treated as a bargaining chip. But I’m surprised it survived this long.

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