The Risk in Drafting Saquon Barkley
Saquon Barkley enters 2019 as the consensus first overall pick in fantasy football drafts. It is hard to knock that, after Barkley finished as the top-scoring RB in 2018, narrowly edging out Christian McCaffrey. But, the Giants do not have a ton of fire-power around last season’s rookie of the year. Does that warrant any concern? If you are taking Saquon Barkey with the first pick you better be saying no, but last year’s David Johnson owners would say different, as would those who drafted Todd Gurley in 2016.
The Giants offense will run through Barkley in 2019, but that is because they lost a big part of their 2018 offense. We have seen running backs become victims of poor play calling and offenses around them. Should that be a concern with Barkley in 2019?
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The Risk in Drafting Saquon Barkley
The Loss of Odell Beckham Jr.
Whether you like him or not, there is no denying that Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the most talented wide receivers in the NFL. While defenses were certainly focusing on Barkley last season, they still had to be concerned about Beckham. Hell, Odell even threw a 57-yard touchdown to Barkley last season! But, luckily for us, we do have a sample size from last season of Barkley with and without Odell. Barkley played with Beckham Jr. in Weeks 1-13, but without him in Weeks 14-17.
As you can see above, Barkley was actually much better with Beckham Jr. on the field than he was without him. The noticeable difference was in the receiving game. As you can see, with Beckham Jr. on the field Barkley was on pace for 121 targets, 99 receptions, 803 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns. Without him the volume didn’t change as he was on pace for 120 targets, so just one less, but he was significantly less effective with those targets, on pace for just 68 catches, 476 yards, and no touchdowns. The initial thinking may be that without Beckham, the Giants would throw the ball more to Barkley, which would lead to more production. However, as the targets show, that’s just not the case. He averaged 0.08 fewer targets per game without Beckham, but the opportunity was not the issue.
So why did the efficiency decrease? Well, with the lack of their best down the field threat, the Giants did not have anyone who could stretch the field and draw the defense away from the line of scrimmage. I have spent a lot of time this offseason discussing the Chiefs running backs and why the passing game opens so much near the line of scrimmage for running backs. That is the opposite effect that the Giants passing game has on Barkley if there is no one that can stretch the field. With no one stretching the field, defenses can crowd closer to the line of scrimmage. Instead, teams focus on stopping him, which leads to similar volume, but decreased efficiency. Remember, volume was not the issue with David Johnson last year or Todd Gurley in 2018, but efficiency was.
Barkley actually put up better rushing numbers with Beckham not on the field. With him on the field, his 16 game pace was 260 carries, 1,272 yards, and 11 touchdowns, but without him on the field, it climbs to 264 carries for 1,412 yards and 12 touchdowns. That is an additional 140 yards and one touchdown on just four additional carries. However, it simply does not make up for the lack of efficiency in the passing game. As you can see, he averaged 25.13 PPR fantasy PPG with Beckham Jr. and just 20.55 without him. That is the difference between scoring 402 PPR fantasy points over 16 games with Beckham, and just 329 PPR fantasy points without him.
How would that impact his fantasy value? He would have been the only running back to eclipse the 400 point mark in 2018, yet the pace without Beckham would have had him finishing as the RB5 behind McCaffrey, Gurley, Alvin Kamara, and Ezekiel Elliott. That is not bad company to be in, but it is worth noting that is with Gurley playing 14 games and Kamara and Elliott missing a game each (CMC barely played Week 17 as well). In terms of a points per game basis, he would have finished second with the 25.13 he averaged with Beckham and eighth amongst RBs, using the 20.55 he averaged without Beckham.
Lack of Weapons around Saquon Barkley
As discussed above, the Giants did not have anyone to space the field once Odell Beckham Jr. was injured, which led to a less effective Barkley in the passing game. The Giants will be without Beckham Jr. all season and will now need the rest of their weapons to step up. The lone issue is the Giants top two receivers and tight end all excel in the slot and do not stretch the field as Beckham does. Below you will see the aDOT of Beckham, as well as the Giants top three weapons in the passing game right now. Tate’s 2018 mark shows his results with both the Eagles and Lions.
|Odell Beckham Jr.||12.3||12.7||10.9|
Shepard can do his best Beckham impersonation, but none of the Giants current weapons have that down the field ability. In fact, Corey Coleman was brought in to be exactly that, but a torn ACL ended his season before it even started. The Giants possess three weapons that all play near the line of scrimmage. None of those three profiles as a down the field threat, which could make life more difficult for Barkley as both a receiver and a rusher.
Below you will see the percentage of the time that defenses had 8+ defenders in the box against Barkley and the Giants, courtesy of Next Gen Stats.
|Game Number||Percent of Time 8+ defenders in box|
The numbers do fluctuate, as is to be expected, based on game flow, teams, scheme, etc. However, it is not hard to see that something changed in those final four games. In the first 12 weeks defenses averaged 8+ defenders in the box just 19.27 percent of the time. That number jumps to 33.54 percent in the final four games. That is inflated by the first game without Beckham, but it is of no coincidence that the three games he saw the most loaded boxes, all came without Beckham. That has to be a concern this season, as the Giants will be without Beckham and did a poor job of finding any weapons that can replace his down the field ability.
Want an added concern? The Giants drafted Daniel Jones sixth overall in the draft and very well could turn to him early on if and when the Giants get off to a slow start. I know what you are thinking: he can’t be much worse than Eli Manning. Sure, tell that to all the David Johnson owners last year who thought Josh Rosen would salvage his value after they benched Sam Bradford.
The Improved O-Line
I am not strictly a Negative Nancy and strive to give you the entire picture. The Giants did go out and improve their offensive line this offseason. They did acquire right guard Kevin Zeitler in the Beckham trade, to go along with a healthy Jon Halapio (center) to go along with Will Hernandez, Nate Solder and Mike Remmers. However, while this group is certainly improved, PFF still rates it the 18th best line in the NFL, so a little below league average.
Saquon Barkley should continue to be one of the top picks in 2019, but if you are not at least a little scared off by the bottom dropping out like it did to DJ last year, well then you have a much stronger stomach than I do. The good news for Barkley is he will have the same coach calling plays that he thrived with in 2018. But despite that, I cannot fully shake the concerns. Barkley is still my number 1 ranked RB in non-PPR and even in half-point PPR leagues, but he comes in as my RB3 in PPR leagues. That may not seem like a huge downgrade, but if you are sitting on the clock with one of the first two picks, it changes everything.
Additionally, the large majority still value Barkley as the top back, regardless of format. Knowing these concerns, I would opt to select both Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara ahead of Barkley in PPR leagues. He will still dominate volume, and that tends to matter more in non-PPR, which is why I cannot lower him there. However, if Ezekiel Elliott lands a contract soon, he will overtake the top spot in those other formats and Barkley will fall to fourth for me in PPR.
It may sound crazy to pass on Barkley if you have the top spot, but remember, it sounded crazy to pass on Johnson at his ADP this time last year.
Want to dispute this? Hit me up on Twitter, @MichaelFFlorio.
Michael Florio is the winner of the 2018 FSWA Baseball Article of the Year and was a finalist for the 2017 Fantasy Football Writer of the Year. He has hosted video/radio shows, written for a number of print and web publications including the AP, NY Daily News and much more!
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