Saquon Barkley enters the 2022 season as one of the more polarizing players in fantasy football. This season marks a pivotal moment in the career of the 2018 Rookie of the Year. Given the circumstances leading to this season, I can’t help but see a parallel between Barkley and another former elite running back: Todd Gurley. Let’s explore why Barkley is the 2022 Gurley.
Saquon Barkley is a version of Todd Gurley … but which one?
In order to fully explain the similarities between Barkley and Gurley, we first must journey through the annals of history. Allow me to take you back seven years.
Todd Gurley’s early career
The year is 2015. The then-St. Louis Rams spend an early first-round pick on a running back out of Georgia coming off a serious knee injury. Gurley missed the first two games of the season and barely played in Week 3. Then, in Week 4, he completely took off.
Gurley rushed for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in just 13 games. From Week 4 on, he averaged 17.2 PPR fantasy points per game. That 17.2 ppg over a full season was good for an overall RB2 finish (if we include Week 3, he averaged 16 ppg and finished as the RB5). He won Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Heading into the 2016 season, Gurley was a consensus top-three pick. Fantasy managers expected him to build on his rookie success. Instead, Gurley averaged a career-worst 3.2 yards per carry and saw his fantasy points per game drop to 12.4. He was one of the biggest busts at the position.
Let’s pause here and shift over to Barkley’s career.
Saquon Barkley’s early career
Much like Gurley, Barkley was also an early first-round pick. He, too, was the chosen one — the next big thing at running back. And just like Gurley, Barkley hit the ground running.
Barkley’s rookie season was even better than Gurley’s. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry, rushing for 1,307 yards on 261 attempts. He totaled 15 touchdowns and averaged 24 ppg, finishing as the overall RB3 in fantasy.
Entering his sophomore season, Barkley was the consensus first overall pick. What did he do? Disappointed — just like Gurley. Although it wasn’t nearly as bad (Barkley still averaged a very respectable 18.8 ppg), it was a huge disappointment given where he was drafted.
Then, in 2020, Barkley tore his ACL in the second game of the season. He returned in 2021 but was clearly hampered by the injury. His explosive run rate dipped considerably, and he just didn’t look like the same player. Barkley averaged 3.7 yards per carry and just 11.4 ppg. It was an eerily similar season to Gurley’s 2016 campaign.
Barkley’s 2022 season
Barkley’s 2022 season can really only go one of two ways. Essentially, it boils down to which version of Gurley Barkley ends up being.
In 2017, coming off a disastrous season by his standards, Gurley’s ADP fell all the way into the mid-to-late second round. Fantasy managers acknowledged Gurley’s upside but were afraid to completely bet on a bounce back to the guy was saw in 2015.
What did Gurley do? He amassed over 2,000 yards from scrimmage en route to an overall RB1 finish, averaging 25.6 ppg.
Coming off a disappointing 2019 outing where he averaged just 14.5 ppg, we found out Gurley was dealing with a chronic knee issue. At just 25 years old, injuries had completely sapped Gurley’s explosiveness. He looked like a shell of his former self.
Despite playing in 15 games, Gurley totaled just 842 yards from scrimmage. Even with nine touchdowns, he averaged just 10.9 ppg. That was the last time we saw Gurley play in the NFL. At this point, it’s fair to say his career is over after just six NFL seasons.
You can start to see the pieces coming together. Heading into this season, Barkley is coming off a disappointing 2021 campaign where he averaged just 11.4 ppg. He dealt with a serious knee injury that clearly impacted his play. Barkley also sustained a high ankle sprain in 2019 and a severe low ankle sprain in 2021.
At the time of this writing, Barkley’s ADP is almost exactly where Gurley’s was in 2017. He’s going in the mid-to-late second round. Fantasy managers still acknowledge the ceiling Barkley displayed as a rookie but have fears over his health.
Is Barkley 2017 Gurley or 2020 Gurley?
Barkley enters the 2022 season at 25 years old — the same age as Gurley when he completely fell apart. He is coming off a down year where he played most of the season but was heavily hindered by injuries. Questions remain as to whether Barkley can ever be the guy he was in 2018.
If Barkley is 2017 Gurley, he will be an absolute steal in the second round of fantasy drafts. The Giants will improve offensively with Brian Daboll taking over as head coach and a better offensive line. Barkley will be the centerpiece of the Giants’ offense. He will operate as a true three-down back who catches passes and handles goal-line work. Barkley will be a league-winning running back from the second round.
If Barkley is 2020 Gurley, he will be a landmine selection in the second round. Despite operating as the clear lead back for the Giants, Barkley just won’t be effective anymore. The injuries will have taken their toll on his body, completely sapping his explosiveness. The guy we saw in 2018 will no longer exists.
So … what’s the answer?
I hate to disappoint, but I don’t have one. At least not definitively.
In my initial rankings, I had Barkley all the way down at RB23. That was back in early May. Since then, he’s steadily climbed and now sits at RB11. By no means am I confident we’re getting a 2017 Gurley season from Barkley. This is a player on what is likely a bad offense playing with a bad quarterback in Daniel Jones, who has never targeted Barkley anywhere near the rate Eli Manning did in 2018.
Barkley has always been a home-run hitter who relied on the splash play and receiving volume to produce. He was not explosive at all in 2021. If that ability does not return, he will need massive receiving volume or to overperform in the touchdown department to avoid being a huge bust. It’s very possible Barkley is on his way out of the NFL just like 2020 Gurley.
At the same time, we know we need to chase ceiling outcomes to win fantasy football championships. Barkley putting up a 2017 Gurley season is certainly within his plausible range of outcomes. Daboll’s new offense could easily feature Barkley as the focal point with an increase in designed passes to their running back. Jones could take a step forward, allowing Barkley, with his explosiveness returning two years removed from his ACL tear, to hit on several big plays en route to an overall RB1 finish.
There aren’t typically running backs with that level of upside available later in the second round. At cost, it may be a gamble worth taking. Ultimately, the decision is up to you. You know what the ceiling looks like. You know what the floor looks like. After reading this, it’s up to you to decide which version of Barkley you think we’re getting.