2018 NFL Preview: Saquon Barkley wasn't the right pick for Giants, but he should be a star

Shutdown Corner

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The New York Giants couldn’t have handled the one-game benching of Eli Manning any worse. Then they seemed to spend the offseason making it up to him.

A team with a 37-year-old quarterback on a significant two-year decline, which had the No. 2 overall pick in a solid quarterback draft, should have picked a quarterback. That seemed obvious. However, the Giants selected a running back. By doing so, they are planning on Manning reversing his slide and being their quarterback for the foreseeable future. It’s not like the 2018 Giants are going to compete for a title, therefore their actions say they expect Manning will be good for three or more seasons.

That seems like a team making decisions with its heart instead of its head. When the Giants drafted Saquon Barkley, they might as well have sent flowers to Manning’s door with a note that said, “Sorry for Ben McAdoo breaking your consecutive starts streak last year.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football leagues are open: Sign up now for free]

While it seems reckless to bet against the poor history of quarterbacks in their late 30s, what’s done is done and this much is also true: Barkley has a chance to be a superstar in New York.

To say Barkley is the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson might even be a bit of revisionist history, because Peterson turned out to be a great NFL back. Barkley might be a better prospect than Peterson was in 2007. Peterson had some injury concerns coming out of Oklahoma. Barkley has all the upside of Peterson, and no significant mark against him. That doesn’t mean Barkley will have a Hall-of-Fame career like Peterson, but he could. He’s really exciting.

While general manager Dave Gettleman — who was diagnosed with lymphoma after the draft, and clearly everyone is rooting for a full recovery — had a head-scratching moment when he called positional value in he draft a “crock,” he = believed that Barkley is a rare talent and he’ll help the Giants in many ways.

“I think that the devaluing of the running back is really a myth,” Gettleman said, according to the Giants’ transcripts. “If you have a great running back, he immediately makes your quarterback better, your offensive line better and your passing game. So I don’t believe in it.”

Of course, the Giants already have an exciting offensive star. Assuming Odell Beckham Jr. returns full speed from ankle surgery, he and Barkley will form an awesome duo. Match them with tight end Evan Engram, receiver Sterling Shepard and an offensive line that added left tackle Nate Solder in free agency, and the Giants have a lot of weapons for new coach Pat Shurmur. Maybe Gettleman is right and all of that talent will lead to Manning’s revival.

Still, the Giants have a long way to go after last season’s fiasco. The Giants had no punch on offense, were bad on defense, abysmal on special teams and fell apart in the locker room. They did nothing at an above-average level last season. You can blame McAdoo for only so much. The Giants were 3-13 and that record was earned.

Shurmur has a mess to clean up. Some coaches are great coordinators and for whatever reason they weren’t great head coaches. We know Shurmur is a fine coordinator. Under his watch, the Minnesota Vikings’ offense had a fine 2017. However, Shurmur also went 9-23 in two seasons as Cleveland Browns coach. Maybe that’s just the stink of the Browns (9-23 isn’t even bad given what has happened since Cleveland fired Shurmur), but we don’t know if Shurmur is a Norv Turner/Wade Phillips type who is better suited as a coordinator.

He takes on a challenging job. Between Beckham’s drama and what seemed like a different Eli Apple story each day, the Giants were a mess on and off the field last season. Part of that comes from being in a media market that never rests. The first order of business wasn’t figuring out what defensive scheme to run or whether Barkley was the best fit at No. 2 overall, but fixing the locker room.

“They don’t want no [expletive], honestly,” Giants safety Landon Collins said this offseason, according to the New York Post. “We want people who want to win, we want people that want to play. We want people that’s hungry and go on the field and do their thing.

“That’s the kind of mindset I see. It’s positive, it’s more [getting] after it, and I would say back to the Giants way.”

To say this is an interesting Giants team is an understatement. The Giants are coming off 13 losses, the most in team history. They have an aging icon at quarterback and passed on replacing him – if Sam Darnold is a star with the New York Jets, they’ll never hear the end of it. Barkley and Beckham will be fun to watch. Shurmur gets his second chance at being a head coach, as he tries to clean up the never-ending drama from the locker room.

At least this year when television networks stick us with the Giants in prime time, they’ll be worth watching.

Saquon Barkley is one of the best running back prospects in many years. (AP)
Saquon Barkley is one of the best running back prospects in many years. (AP)

I just can’t get behind the Saquon Barkley pick. I like Barkley a lot as a player but that’s a luxury pick, and the Giants aren’t in a spot to make that type of selection. I will give them credit for trying to fix the offensive line. They overpaid left tackle Nate Solder, but any decent offensive lineman will be overpaid in free agency. Guard Will Hernandez was a quality second-round pick. However, the Giants also lost center Weston Richburg and guard Justin Pugh in free agency. Trading for linebacker Alec Ogletree fixes a long-standing weakness, though trading away Jason Pierre-Paul leaves the Giants thin at edge rusher. Mostly I have to dock their grade because of the Barkley decision. Drafting a running back second overall while ignoring quarterback is not a shrewd move in 2018.

GRADE: C-

The obvious answer is that the Giants have the most exciting running back-receiver duo outside of Pittsburgh. But there’s more to the Giants’ offense than their two superstars. Most rookie tight ends struggle, but Evan Engram posted a strong 64-722-6 line. He should be better this season, even if his targets take a hit due to Odell Beckham’s return and the addition of Saquon Barkley. The Giants are also getting Sterling Shepard back and healthy after an injury-plagued 2017. Shepard still put up 731 yards in 11 games. There are capable players around the Giants’ two featured offensive weapons.

I’m always a little wary of teams switching between 4-3 and 3-4 because, generally, time is needed to acquire pieces that fit (though, it’s also fair to say every team has some form of a hybrid defense in this era). The Giants are switching to a 3-4 this season under new defensive coordinator James Bettcher. The good news is pass rusher Olivier Vernon has some experience standing up on the edge, and Damon Harrison should be a fine nose tackle. But I’m not sure the Giants have much depth at linebacker for a 3-4. Their pass rush is very thin unless rookie third-round pick Lorenzo Carter has an instant impact, and the history of rookie pass rushers isn’t good. Cornerback depth is also a bit of a concern, and I’m curious to see if they use star safety Landon Collins in an advantageous way. This was a bad defense last season, and it’s a leap of faith to believe it will be a lot better with a scheme change.

While it’s clear the Giants mishandled Eli Manning’s benching, the truth is … (lowers voice) … benching Manning last season was justified. Breaking Manning’s streak to start Geno Smith, not rookie Davis Webb, was coaching malpractice. The clumsy way Ben McAdoo handled it all will be the most memorable moment of his disastrous Giants stint. But, it’s not like Manning was playing well.

Manning hadn’t posted a passer rating lower than 85.3 since 2007. Last season he was at 80.4. Manning’s touchdown percentage of 3.3 percent was better than only six qualifying quarterbacks, and four were first-time starters: Marcus Mariota, Jacoby Brissett, Brett Hundley, DeShone Kizer, Mitchell Trubisky. C.J. Beathard. That’s not a group you want to be a part of. His yards per attempt was better than only Hundley and Joe Flacco. Manning’s QBR and passer rating both ranked lower than Jay Cutler, who was retired until last August and is retired again this year. And Manning’s poor season continued a trend; his numbers took a dip in 2016 as well.

You can blame Manning’s terrible supporting cast, especially after Odell Beckham’s injury, and that’s fair. But Manning hasn’t played well in two seasons, and now he’s 37. Other than Tom Brady, the history of quarterbacks who are 37 years old and beyond isn’t great. Yet, the Giants haven’t prepared for the future. The Giants told us what they think of 2017 third-round pick Davis Webb when they picked Kyle Lauletta in the fourth round this season. And Lauletta is unlikely to be the ultimate answer either. Mid-round quarterbacks are usually wasted picks. When Manning is done, the Giants will likely be trying to buy someone better than Webb or Lauletta (can we just fit Sam Bradford for a Giants jersey right now?).

It’s Manning’s job, and the Giants seem to think he’ll have it for a while. That’s a big gamble on Manning reversing some troubling trends late in his career.

If we’re debating the best player in the NFL, and don’t include quarterbacks, Odell Beckham has a good argument. After he fractured his ankle last season, the Giants’ offense fell apart. For a couple years, opponents have known Beckham was the only option the Giants had, and they still couldn’t stop him. He has rare, spectacular talent. The big question surrounding Beckham is his contract. He has said he wants to be paid like a top quarterback, which is probably why he doesn’t have an extension yet. Ralph Vacchiano of SNY reported in mid-June there is “no movement in contract talks.” The Giants could franchise Beckham two times for far less money than he presumably wants, but it seems doubtful he’d happily accept that. Most contract issues get resolved, but this standoff won’t be easy.

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “In the middle part of Round 1 in 12-team drafts, Saquon Barkley is the fantasy equivalent of when ‘No Diggity’ spins at the wedding reception: THE JAM. I have zero reservations about his RB1 worth no matter format. Zero.

“Barkley is an extremely gifted, multidimensional marvel destined to take the league by storm. His off-the-charts athletic profile (99th SPARQ percentile), ideal size (6-feet, 233 pounds), versatile three-down skill set, ridiculous tackle-thwarting abilities (3.54 YAC per attempt in 2017) and breakaway wheels (4.40 40-yard) place him among some of the game’s best rushing talents. Oh, and his quads are superhero quality.

“Behind an upgraded offensive line, given what should be an above-average Giants defense and with Eli Manning in his twilight phase, he will be Big Blue’s steam engine, a rusher likely to total nearly 25 touches per game. Remember, four first-year RBs in .5 PPR last season finished inside the position’s top 12. Fear the unknown; lose your league. Barkley, who is a strong candidate for 1400-1600 total yards with 12-plus touchdowns, is every bit a fantasy first rounder.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Giants.]

[Yahoo Fantasy Football leagues are open: Sign up now for free]

Odell Beckham’s yardage per game has seen a significant drop each season. He had 108.8 yards per game his amazing rookie season, then 96.7 in Year 2, 85.4 in 2016 and 75.5 per game before his season-ending injury last season. Make no mistake, the numbers Beckham puts up are still amazing. But a few factors — a decaying offensive line, Eli Manning’s play slipping, no other elite option in the offense to take pressure off of him — have put a dent into his productivity the past few seasons.

ARE THE GIANTS TRYING TO WIN NOW OR BUILD FOR THE FUTURE?

For most NFL teams, this answer is usually pretty easy to figure out. Not so when it comes to the Giants. Even GM Dave Gettleman admitted he was stuck in the middle.

“As the GM, I walk a tight line,” Gettleman said, according to NJ.com. “I have to look at the short term and I have to look at the long term, and that’s the tightrope that I walk. I have to take all that into consideration in making decisions, whether it’s the draft, whether it’s unrestricted free agency, whether it’s trading for an Alec Ogletree. You have to think about it. So I’m on that tight rope doing the best I can with the information that I have, and we move forward.”

He made it clear this isn’t a rebuild (“I’ve seen someone told one of the reporters that I’m in a tear-down. I’m not doing that,” Gettleman told NJ.com) and mostly it seems like a win-now offseason. The trade of Jason Pierre-Paul and the release of receiver Brandon Marshall seemed to signal a bit of a youth movement, but then the team traded for linebacker Alec Ogletree and of course passed on a quarterback with the second pick of the draft (and Gettleman says they never considered trading down to stockpile picks). Though, fourth-round pick Kyle Lauletta was a pick for the future at quarterback. 

A 3-13 team isn’t usually going to invest in a quick turnaround, but that’s mostly what the Giants did.

We have to acknowledge that in 2016, the Giants were 11-5. It’s hard to envision that type of season in 2018, but maybe Dave Gettleman is right and Saquon Barkley will help restore Eli Manning’s prime. Any offense with Odell Beckham and Barkley should put up points, and the defense has stars like safety Landon Collins, linebacker Alec Ogletree, nose tackle Damon Harrison, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and pass rusher Olivier Vernon. Assuming Pat Shurmur is a huge upgrade over bumbling Ben McAdoo, you can imagine a big jump in wins. Not many 3-13 teams have as much talent as the Giants.

If Eli Manning continues his slide, then what? Keep hoping for a rebound at age 38? If the Giants stink again – and they were terrible in practically any measurable category last season – they’ll be a bad team with an old quarterback and no real plan for the future. And while Dave Gettleman says he didn’t “fall in love” with any of the quarterbacks in this class, it’s not like there’s a 2012 Andrew Luck-level prospect on the horizon. And even if one emerges, the Giants aren’t guaranteed to get the first overall pick to grab him. If there’s no progress this season, the Giants are going to be in a weird spot.

I think the Giants improve, because a healthy Odell Beckham and Saquon Barkley will boost the offense. But I don’t buy Eli Manning having a big rebound, the offensive line still has issues and a defense that’s undergoing a significant scheme change has holes too. The Giants will finish in last in the NFC East, with about six wins. That would be good enough to knock them out of the running for a top quarterback prospect in the 2019 draft. And I have no idea what they would do then.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears

– – – – – – –

Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

What to Read Next

Back