Saquon Barkley is an elite fantasy running back, and arguably one of the best talents in the NFL today. He is currently being taken with the first two picks in fantasy drafts, and no one seems to be questioning this pick. When researching Barkley, I found five major red flags that could cause him to be a bust in 2020. I would never advise someone to “completely avoid” Saquon, but the reasons below show that the top five picks of your draft may not be as set in stone as you may think.
Despite only playing 12 full games due to injury, Saquon was able to put up impressive numbers. He carried the ball 217 times for 1,003 yards and 6 touchdowns. He added 52 receptions for 438 yards and 2 additional touchdowns. Saquon Barkley had an interesting season from a fantasy perspective. He was the consensus 1.01 pick in 2019 and was the RB#6 through the first two weeks of the season. This is an incredibly small sample size, but he was putting up more middle-tier RB1 numbers, as opposed to the elite numbers you drafted him for. In week 3 against Tampa Bay, Saquon suffers a high ankle sprain and does not return until week 7. After his return from injury, Saquon was the 4th best running back in fantasy from weeks 7-17. As you can see from the game log to the left, his final ranking may not be indicative of how good he really was. He scored under 9 PPR points on 3 of his last 10 games. Against the Jets in week 10, Saquon rushed the ball 13 times for a single yard! What skewed his final rankings was his elite performances during the fantasy playoffs. As you can see, Saquon blew up against Miami in week 15 and Washington week 16. He was the unquestioned RB#1 during those two games, but both of those teams were bottom five in the league in rush defense. If you take away those two blow up games, Saquon was the RB#13 weeks 7-14, and that ranking better reflects his performance last season. There is an argument to be made that he was still recovering from his high ankle sprain and this slowed him down, but further research shows that it may be multiple factors that cause Saquon to fall from his elite status.
Saquon Barkley The Athlete
Before my DMs get blown up with people calling me a Giants hater, I need to establish my perspective on Saquon the player. I believe he is the best true running back in the game today, and arguably one of the best athletes in the NFL. Let’s not forget that Saquon tested in the 97th percentile when he ran a 4.40 40 yard dash. He tested 99th in speed score, 96th in burst score, and 96th in bench press, and all of these physical attributes translated to him being elite of the NFL field. As can be seen in the picture to your left, there is a reason people talk about his quads, as Saquon truly is a freak athlete.
To play devil’s advocate to my point, there are many legitimate reasons to be excited about Saquon in 2020. Many people are expecting Daniel Jones to progress as a quarterback, hopefully improving that offense and giving Saquon more opportunities around the goalline. The Giants added three offensive linemen in the 2020 draft and picked up Cameron Fleming in free agency. Ideally, this newly revamped offensive line will open up more holes for Saquon, and help him get tackled less in the backfield. Finally, people are excited about Saquon because he has had a full year to recover. All of these combined factors point towards Saquon having an excellent chance at being the best running back in fantasy again, and worthy of a top-two pick. That all being said, there are multiple red flags surrounding Saquon going into 2020, all of which need to be considered before you invest such a high draft pick in him.
In 2018, when Saquon finished as the RB#1, Eli Manning targeted Saquon 121 times. For context, that is as many targets as Chris Godwin saw last season on that high flying Buccaneer offense. The reason Barkley saw so many targets is because, near the end of his career, Manning had minimal rushing ability, and would check down to Saquon every time the defense got near to him. Once Daniel Jones took the starting job, Saquon averaged two fewer targets a game. This was due to Jones being more of a mobile quarterback, so when the pocket collapsed, he either scrambled or moved in the pocket to extend the play downfield. Two targets less a game may not seem like much, but you have to look at the players Saquon is competing against. Even if Saquon finishes in the 80-90 target range, McCaffrey saw 142 targets, and Alvin Kamara has caught 81 targets every season for the past three years! His lack of future targets not only lower his weekly ceiling but his weekly floor as well.
#2 New Coaching Staff
Joe Judge was recently hired to be the new HC for the Giants for the foreseeable future. Judge’s career consists of him being a special teams coach for the New England Patriots since 2012, and their wide receiver coach in 2019. Judge has no experience leading a team, much less play calling. Historically, new head coaches tend to struggle their first year with a team, especially ones with no head coaching experience. Jason Garret joined the Giants as their offensive coordinator, and his experience will be vital for Giant’s offensive success. We saw flashes of the Cowboy’s being a top 12 offense under Garret, but even last year their offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was calling the plays. Plus, Garret was never known for being especially creative when it came to getting his players the ball. I am not guaranteeing that the Giant’s offense will struggle in 2020, all I am saying is that they may not take the step forward many are predicting, and this adds another layer of risk to Saquon as a fantasy asset.
#3 Efficiency Regression
Barkley led the league in 2018 with 16 runs of 20+ yards. For those who don’t want to do the math, that is an average of one long run in 100% of his games. I saw this first hand in 2018 in week 1 when the Giants played the Jaguars. Saquon was struggling to gain yardage throughout the game, but ripped off a 68-yard touchdown run in the 4th quarter and saved his fantasy week. Without that run, Barkley would have finished with just 38 yards and no touchdowns. We saw time and time again, these long runs save Barkley’s fantasy production in 2018 and once he naturally regressed and broke less long runs, we witnessed his fantasy floor. In 2019, Saquon had a run of 20+ yards, in only 65% of his games. Even though he was recovering from injury, this percentage is much more sustainable and likely to continue. It would be irresponsible for a fantasy analyst to project this type of efficiency for any running back moving forward, and this includes even the top tier athletes.
#4 2020 Schedule
Fantasy Pros has Saquon Barkley ranked with the 4th hardest schedule amongst running back in 2020. As you can see in the image, his schedule is far from a walk in the park. He kicks off the season against the Steelers who were ranked first in the league, giving up only seven rushing touchdowns. Then he faces the Bears, who were a top 10 run defense in 2019. After the Bears, Saquon faces the 49ers stout defense, who showed last year are no easy matchup. Being in the same division, Barkley will face the Eagles twice, who gave up the third-fewest rushing yards in 2019. He will also play the Cowboys twice, who were a top 12 run defense last season. In week 8, Barkley faces the Buccaneers, who were quietly the top run defense in the league last season. Finally, in the fantasy championship, Barkley plays the Ravens, who were a strong run defense in 2019, and just added Calais Cambell to their defensive line, making them arguably a top 10 defense in the league. If you draft Saquon in the first two picks, there is no scenario where you bench him due to matchups. That being said, 56% of Saquon’s matchups are against elite rush defenses, and even the most talented running backs are not impervious to struggling against difficult matchups.
As previously mentioned, Saquon’s 2019 season got derailed due to a high ankle sprain. On September 23rd, Adam Schefter reported that Saquon would likely take “on the longer side” of 4-8 months for him to recover and be back on the field. Because Saquon is a freak of nature, the man was able to return only 3 weeks later. One of the main excuses for Barkley's poor production throughout the rest of the season was his struggles in recovering from said injury. Player Profiler has Saquon Barkley marked at a “medium” risk for reinjury in 2020. I am not expecting this injury to hinder Barkley next season, nor am I predicting him to get hurt. Yet, when you are splitting hairs between the elite fantasy players, all factors, even remote injuries, must be taken into consideration.
Saquon is an elite athlete and one of the best running backs in the NFL today. That being said, to acquire him on your fantasy team you are going to have to invest a top-two pick in him. His ADP leaves very little room for error, and if Barkley is anything less than a top-three running back, it could end up harming your fantasy season. You are drafting Saquon to be among the best players in fantasy, and there are a surprising amount of ways he doesn’t finish there. After concluding my research, I am not dubbing Barkley as a bust, and I would probably still draft him with the 1.02 more often than not. It seems no one in the industry is questioning investing a top-two pick in Barkley, and I don’t believe it is that simple. It is my job to look at all facts and present all the angles, so nobody is surprised if Saquon’s season isn’t as elite as some expect. Between the lack of targets, question marks around the new coaching staff, lowered efficiency, horrendous schedule, and risk of re-injury, I do not think it’s crazy to consider other players at the 1.02.
The argument can be made that Ezekiel Elliot is a safer pick because of the offense he plays on and the fewer risk factors surrounding him. I could also see Alvin Kamara catching more passes and scoring more touchdowns than Saquon in 2020, especially due to the higher level of confidence in the Saints offense. Even Dalvin Cook could be considered with the 1.02 pick in some cases. If Cook gets paid, as I am expecting him too, he has no reason not to replicate his top tier 2019 season that carried many people to a fantasy championship. As of right now, I would probably take Saquon over all of these players, but if I am drafting from the 1.02 in ten different leagues, I would probably have Saquon in only six of them. The reality is, almost everyone drafted Saquon over McCaffrey in 2019, and due to a combination of the previously mentioned red flags, nearly everyone regretted their pick.
For more information on Saquon Barkley's 2020 season: