What Do We Do With Saquon Barkley? (Fantasy Football)

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I was recently on a call with my fellow Fantasy Footballers writers. It was a yearly catch-up meeting where we talked about our lives, writing, and generally get centered heading into the upcoming NFL season. We talked about the draft, the big trades that had taken place in the off-season, and players that we were uncertain about – players we were unsure about where we were ok drafting. Many names were tossed about – Tua, Jalen Hurts, Michael Thomas, but there was one name that stuck out more than the others. That name was Saquon Barkley. None of us knew what to do with him. Barkley is an anomaly stuck inside a paradox with a history ripe with injury on a team desperately searching for their identity led by a QB who could be on his last leg. Nothing about this spells fantasy certainty. If anything, it sounds more like the recipe for fantasy disaster.

But does fantasy certainty even exist in a league ripe with catastrophic injuries, shared backfields, and hot hands? After seeing CMC go down in consecutive years and no names like Amon-Ra St. Brown leading people to league championships, the answer is no.

So. What do we do with Saquon Barkley?

Before figuring out how to tackle Barkley, we need to look at how we got here in the first place. After going second in the 2018 NFL draft, Saquon set several records as a rookie, rushing for over 1300 yards and 11 TDs and 721 receiving yards and four receiving TDs. He finished as the RB2 that season. His fantastic rookie season set him up for success leading up to 2019 fantasy drafts, where according to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, he was the consensus first pick. Standards were high for the Giants RB. The 2019 season was not as exciting as the year previous for Barkley but still was a successful fantasy outing. He still rushed for over 1000 yards and had over 400 receiving yards. He had eight total TDs and became the only RB in Giants’ history to have 1000 rushing yards in their first two seasons.

There is a lot to consider when it comes to the placement of Saquon Barkley in your draft queue. Let’s break it down.

Is he actually healthy?

In September 2020, Barkley suffered a knee ACL tear and an MCL sprain and was sidelined for the rest of the season. In 2020 he was only on the field for two games, devastating fantasy owners everywhere. When he returned in 2021, we were anxious to see if he was the athlete we remembered. Spoiler alert, he wasn’t. At least not for the 2021 season. He finished the year as RB33 in half-point PPR and RB32 in standard leagues. It was an aggressive slap in the face to owners who still believed in the talent. But should expectations have been slightly more tempered for a man returning from an ACL and MCL injury? History has not been overly kind to those RBs returning from injuries like Barkley’s. Minus Adrian Peterson, most RBs who return from an ACL injury put up lower rushing totals the season post-injury compared to the season pre-injury, which is precisely what happened to Saquon. That 2012 season for AP was one of the best seasons for any RB, so it is a bit of an outlier.

The injury return could be a slight chicken or egg scenario – does the coaching staff hold back on the RB to avoid further injury, or does the past injury hinder their RB’s current work capacity? I looked at rushing totals from six different RBs who sustained a torn ACL and returned to play for at least another season. The initial dip post-injury is clear, but the most intriguing stat is that almost all the RBs jumped back up stat-wise in the next season, and some were higher than they were even before their injury. The two outliers here are Rashard Mendenhall (end of career) and Deuce McAllister (another injury). So, where could that put us with Saquon? If we keep those statistics in mind, he might be poised for quite a bounce-back season. Look, I am clearly no injury expert Matthew Betz over here, but what I came away with is that it might just take longer to bounce back from an ACL than players and fantasy owners think. This season we will have two more RBs to add to our injury sample size, with JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards attempting a post-ACL tear comeback.

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Injury Age Yards Prior to Injury 1st Season post-Injury
2nd Season post-Injury
Edgerrin James 23 1709 989 1259
Jamal Lewis 21 1364 1327 2066
Adrian Peterson 26 1298 2097 1266
Rashard Mendenhall 24 928 182 687
Deuce McAllister 27 1074 1057 92
Knowshon Moreno 24 779 525 1038
Saquon Barkley 23 1003 593 ?

In his own words – “I definitely feel a lot different, a lot better. I feel like myself again,” said Barkley. “Obviously, I don’t want to jump the gun, I just want to keep focusing on the little things and get better every day. No matter what for the rest of your career, with injuries, every offseason is going to be kind of somewhat rehabbing or pre-habbing.”

Is he a workhorse?

The Opportunity is Key

Saquon’s health means little or nothing if he does not get the opportunity with the ball. When Barkley was healthy in 2018 and 2019, he played 83% of the snaps and had a metric of around 40% in our workhorse percentage – the percentage of total team rushing attempts and targets. You can find this stat for each player under their usage tab on the Fantasy Footballers website. He also garnered 80% of the RB receiving targets in 2018 and 87% in 2019. Many signs point to this returning with the Giants getting rid of Joe Judge and hiring a new head coach in Brian Daboll. As we saw with Josh Allen and the Bills, the ex-Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator knows how to turn around teams. Daboll also has plans for Barkley. Seeing the goldmine that was partially tapped with Saquon catching the ball, Daboll has made it clear that he wants to use Barkley more as a receiver. This simple concept is especially great for Saquon and the Giants in two ways – first, Saquon has proved himself to be a great pass catcher, so why not exploit it, and by definition, it diminishes the number of times Barkley will be opening himself to massive hits on the ground and potentially more injuries. Barkley had 91 receptions on 114 targets in his rookie year and averaged just under CMC with 7.6 targets a game.

Simple. But effective.

Looking Over His Shoulder

The curse of the backup RB will undoubtedly hang over the head of Saquon owners this year. Last season, Devontae Booker looked pretty good running the ball behind Barkley; he finished the season with 145 attempts and 593 yards. He was targeted in the passing game, too, receiving 45 targets. This year, the primary backup is another Bills veteran, Matt Breida. Although he will get some work in the running game, Breida does not have a considerable history as a pass-catcher, never clocking a season with more than 34 targets and having less than ten targets each of the last two years. The RB targets are ripe for Saquon’s taking this season. I expect to see Daboll funnel that offense through Barkley, getting him back up to around 70 targets, just like 2019. It is what he does with them that will keep us holding our breath. If the only RBs that Barkley is competing with is Matt Breida and Gary Brightwell, methinks he could be set up for success.

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Is the future bright?

Saquon is set to be a free agent in 2023, so if there could be a bit of extra motivation to excel this season, that is it. In mock drafts, I constantly find myself passing on Saquon, and I am starting to wonder why. According to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, he is going as the 18th RB off the board at the beginning of the fourth round. Look I get it. We have been burned before. Badly. But as Matthew Betz said,for players coming off an injury, (you are) always considering opportunity cost. He was an easy fade in round one last year, but now the risk is already baked in.”  As I let that marinate, I believe that if Saquon falls to you in the fourth round or the beginning of the fifth, I think taking a chance on him could be a wise choice. As usual, it comes down to draft capital and the makeup of your league. If you are surrounded by owners who are simply scared of Barkley, you could get him at a hefty discount and ride that potential workhorse usage right into the fantasy playoffs.

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