Arguably one of the biggest storylines of the 2019 fantasy football season so far has been the disappointing play of New York Giant running back Saquon Barkley. Just a few months ago, Barkley was still being labeled as a “generational talent” and was the consensus among fantasy experts to be the 1.01 in drafts. The public had the same option giving him the highest ADP (average draft position) across multiple platforms. Coming off a 2018 campaign where he had over 2,000 yards and earned himself the Rookie of the Year award, Barkley looked to be one of the safest picks imaginable. Yet here we are in Week 12 after another disappointing performance, wondering if Saquon Barkley can be trusted in your fantasy football playoffs.
Anyone who has played fantasy football for multiple years knows how crucial it is to nail your first few rounds in a draft. These choices make up not only the backbone of your roster but should also generate the vast majority of your points over the entire season. Whether by avoiding injury or just bad luck, you need these players to pay off in the hopes of making it to your league’s playoffs spots. Week 13 in the majority of leagues signifies the final week of regular-season play, and for a lot of owners, the last chance to get into the dance. This is crunch time. Win or go home. Now, more then ever, your studs need to come through in the clutch. Can you count on Barkley to do that for you? To answer that question, we need to take a closer look, diving deeper past the box scores to examine how we go to this point.
Offensive Line Play
It’s no secret the Giants offensive line has been playing rather poorly. Just get on Twitter and see for yourself what Giants fans are saying during a game if you don’t believe me. The Giants are in the middle of trying to rebuild their offensive line, and their bottom 10 of the NFL ranking reflects that. However, this isn’t due to a lack of continuity, as they have started the same five players this season in all but one game (Week 10). One of the main issues is that they just aren’t winning at the line of scrimmage. Per Football Outsiders, through Week 11, the Giants are allowing a Stuff Rate (percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) of 19%. This ranks 11th in the NFL and is pretty much league average. When you compare it to the 2018 performance of 20.9%, and you see there has really been no improvement across the line.
The two guards, Kevin Zeitler and Will Hernandez, have been fine, but they need upgrades at both tackle positions and center. At left tackle, Nate Solder is getting beat by average defensive ends, never mind elite guys. Free-agent Mike Remmers, brought in to be a band-aid at right tackle, hasn’t been much better. By consistently allowing opposing defensive ends to set the edge and force Barkley inside, this takes away his ability to either find cut back lanes or get outside into space for more advantageous matchups against linebackers or cornerbacks. This has forced Barkley to spend 2.98 seconds on average behind the line of scrimmage while only seeing, on average, 6.8 defenders in the box. When it comes to a stacked box (8+ defenders), he is facing that on just 15.25% of plays.
For an example of other players, Denver Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay sees a stacked box rate of 15.65%, and Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey is facing a stacked box at a staggering 21.72% of the time. Yet both these players have more yards and more yards per attempt than Barkley.
The offensive line, in both performance and personal, isn’t something that will improve as fantasy playoffs approach. They will have to address it in the offseason or through the draft. Dave Gettleman and the rest of the staff have to make this priority number one if they want to protect their franchise quarterback Daniel Jones, as well as get the most out of star running back.
Injuries and the Daniel Jones Era
Has Barkley fully recovered from his Week 3 ankle injury? I know he has said he is 100%, and every member of the team will reiterate the same point, but the play on the field states otherwise. In the first two weeks, Barkley looked just as good as he did in 2018. In his first two games combined, Barkley had 29 carries for 227 yards (7.8 average) and a rushing touchdown.
Additionally, he caught 7 of his 13 targets for 47 receiving yards (3.6 average). These impressive stats also happened while Eli Manning was under center. In the five games since head coach Pat Shurmur made the switch to Jones, Barkley hasn’t rushed for more than 72 yards in a game and has only eclipsed 100 all-purpose yards once while scoring just two times.
What we aren’t seeing is Barkley’s elite ability to make someone miss and get into space where he can break off long runs. In 2018 and earlier in the season, when given an opportunity to cut outside, he took it and ran with it. This season, he is passing on that and just taking what the defense is giving him, and getting caught up behind his blockers. In Week 12’s game against the Chicago Bears, he had his first rush for over 20 yards since Week 2! Take a look at his rushing chart from Week 12 as an example.
When the injury happened in Week 3, the initial reports stated it could be a 6-8 week recovery time, although Barkley was quick to shut that down. From what we are watching now, you have to wonder if he just came back too fast. Obviously, he and the Giants wanted him back on the field as soon as possible. However, I don’t think he was fully recovered from the injury and rushed back to the field too soon. If we use the reported timeline as our base, we are now at the end of that recovery time and should start to see a healthy Barkley going forward. For fantasy players about to reach the playoffs, this return to full health could not happen at a better time.
Another potential contributing factor to Barkley’s disappointing season could be the quarterback play of Jones. While Jones has been playing about as well as a rookie could do behind a weak offensive line, his playstyle is entirely different than that of predecessor Eli Manning. Manning took a lot of flack from fans and the media for his willingness to dump the ball off, which worked out in favor of Barkley. With Jones, there’s been a shift for the Giants offensively as he is more prone to look down the field, virtually eliminating Barkley from the passing game.
With Jones looking down the field more, Barkley has just 46 targets on the season, and 13 of those came when Manning was still starting quarterback. That’s a sharp decrease from the 121 targets he had in 2018. This change in playstyle isn’t lost on Barkley as he was quoted as saying, “Where do you win in that situation?” Barkley said. “When Eli was our quarterback, and I was getting the ball too much, everyone would say, ‘He throws check-downs too much.’ So now that we’re not throwing check-downs, ‘Oh, he’s looking down the field too much?’ Me personally, I don’t ever want to get in his way.”
For a rookie QB, the checkdown is one of the smartest plays they can make. Defenses are more advanced and better at hiding their coverage pre-snap, making it tough to make the correct read every time. By utilizing the checkdown, you get the ball into your playmakers’ hands with high percentage plays rather than risk a drive ending interception. Both Jones and Shurmur need to come up with more ways to get the ball out of his hands and into Barkley’s more. A great place to start would be to increase the number of rushing plays called. The Giants ranks 28th in the NFL, averaging only 21.4 rushing attempts per game. With a defense giving up the 4th most points in the league, leaning on the rushing attack to control the clock wouldn’t be a bad idea. Getting behind in games as fast as they have has forced them to abandon the running game early, taking Barkley out of the equation far too soon.
By the Numbers
When analyzing Barkley’s 2018 and 2019 numbers, some really stand out. In 2018, Barkley carried the ball 261 times (16.31 per game). In 2019, that number has dropped to only 101 carries in his eight games played (12.62 per game). His targets have also seen a decline from 121 (5.68 per game) to 46 (4.37 per game). As mentioned before, this is due to the change in QB play from Manning to Jones. When he is getting the ball, his yards per touch are down as well. In 2018 he averaged 5.01 yards per carry, compared to his current 3.91 average in 2019. There is also a considerable reduction in red-zone touches. In 2019, Barkley only has 21 touches in the red zone, nearly a third less than his 61 touches in 2018. That alone is a significant factor in his vastly reduced fantasy points per touch average of 0.81 in 2019, compared to the 2018 number of 1.09 points per touch.
To sum all those numbers up, Barkley is merely doing less per opportunity, while receiving fewer opportunities. In 2018, he averaged 81.7 rushing yards per game, with 45.1 receiving yards. This season, he is averaging 24 rushing yards less per game (57.6) and only 32.37 receiving yards each week. To put it simply, that is a loss of an average of at least three fantasy points per game before we even consider touchdowns and PPR scoring.
Looking at how this season has gone as a whole, I’m personally attributing most of this decrease to not being fully healthy. Poor play around him hasn’t helped for sure, but I think these numbers will go up as the season goes on, which is an excellent sign for the fantasy playoffs. Barkley is just too good to play at this kind of level for an entire season if something wasn’t physically wrong with him.
What to expect moving forward
After all of this, you might expect me to say that I would be concerned about Barkley going into your fantasy football playoffs. Actually, I think if you have made it this far in your season, you are about to be rewarded. Take a look at his playoff schedule. In Weeks 14, 15 & 16, the Giants will matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins, and Washington Redskins. While the Eagles matchup isn’t the best, you can’t ask for a better final two games when you need a win. I know he has let you down as well as countless other fantasy owners, but trust in his talent down the stretch. The Giants need a good showing in these final games, and they will only get that if they rely on their workhorse.
Is he going to be the fantasy MVP of the year? No. Can he be the MVP of your fantasy championship game? Absolutely.
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Tommy Garrett is a writer for PFN covering Fantasy Football. You can follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.