By: Thomas Frank Carr
While the majority of fans are on board, some Penn State faithful still are holding out hope that Saquon Barkley will come back to University Park for his senior year. This isn’t a revolutionary article but it will hopefully provide context. There is no decision other than for Saquon Barkley to declare early for the NFL Draft now that the 2017 regular season has concluded.
I should warn you, we are going to be discussing the merits of making millions of dollars versus making tens of millions of dollars. If that bothers you or offends your sensibilities, leave now. As James Franklin has put it after a win vs Nebraska this year,
“Sometimes I hear people criticize players that leave early and go to the NFL, but this is the story I say all the time: If IBM came to our computer engineering department and offered a junior a $12 million contract, they’d be gone.”
That is not the case for every player. In the past five years a record number of underclassmen have declared early for the draft and have either gone undrafted, or have been taken in the later rounds, costing themselves a significant amount of money. If those players had stayed another year in school and graduated the next year with a more polished product, they would have a chance to be drafted higher by teams that want starter-ready skills from players.
There is nothing left for Saquon Barkley to improve upon.
He’s a skilled back with great physical tools and has lifted weights to a point of diminishing returns during his time at Penn State. He’s skilled in blitz pickup and is adept at catching and running a variety of routes.
That is not to say his game is perfect. Fans have been frustrated at times with his propensity to dance too much instead of lowering a shoulder and getting the yards that he can. However this issue is not one that another year of pounding in the Big 10 will fix. Saquon Barkley is who is he is as a runner at this point.
That isn’t even the main reason why Barkley should declare for the NFL Draft after Penn State plays Maryland on Saturday. The fact is that his position is all about physical ability and being able to run at peak explosiveness. There are only so many years that a human body can sustain that level of performance and the clock is ticking for a player like Saquon Barkley.
Consider this- Barkley will turn 21 years old in February (very early happy birthday Saquon). If he were to stay at Penn State he would be 22 years old when he entered the NFL Draft in 2019. Most experts agree that the shelf life of an NFL running back cuts out around the age of 30. That would give him only eight years of earning potential in the NFL. Barkley is likely to be drafted in the 1st round, which means that he would have a four year rookie contract with a fifth year option. He would be 27 by the time that he would be a free agent for the first time in the NFL. If a team were to franchise tag him (they can do that twice in a row) he would certainly make a lot of money, but he would be 29 when he was an unrestricted free agent and could earn a top flight NFL deal. No team would give a 29 year old running back a max contract given the history of that position and the replace-ability of runners.
It may not seem like it, but Barkley entering the NFL Draft now could make him millions of more dollars in five or six years. Being 26 and in his prime when he’s a free agent is worth quite a bit of money. This is the situation that Le’Veon Bell finds himself in right now. He’s 25 years old and will likely only get one more NFL contract of significance.
The other reality is that despite being incredibly important to an offense, running backs do not have the value that they used to in the NFL. Devonta Freeman of the Falcons just signed a five year extension worth a total of 40 million dollars. That would make him only the 12th highest paid wide receiver (just head of Allen Hurns of the Jags) or the 13th highest paid corner (Do you know who Jimmy Smith is?), according to OvertheCap.com. This is why Bell balked at the Steelers offers this summer. He wants to be paid like a “skill position” player.
*As a side note, “Skill position” is a ridiculous term of differentiation. Every position in the NFL requires incredible skill.
Now that is assuming a lot of things in the future. Firstly that we’re all still around by the year 2026 and the sun hasn’t exploded or there hasn’t been a zombie apocalypse and the NFL is still a money pit that you can fal into and not feel the bottom. That’s also assuming that Barkley has a career that is on par with his potential.
What this all boils down to is that Saquon Barkley has two shots to get a contract of real significance. The first will be when he is drafted. The second may never come but if it does, it likely won’t be on par with what his teammates at more valued positions make. Making sure he puts himself in the position to maximize that should be what he worries about, not whether or not he has a feel-good ending to his college career.
Now about that first contract and a feel good ending….
Barkley Shouldn’t Play in a Bowl Game, Even Though He Will
If you want to weigh risk/rewards of a top 5 prospect going in the NFL Draft playing in a bowl game consider Leonard Fournette. The former LSU tiger was selected fourth overall last year in the 2017 NFL Draft. His contract, per the NFL rookie scale is for 27 million dollars and change with 17 of that guaranteed according to Over The Cap. Christian McCaffrey was taken four spots later at 8th overall by the Chargers. His rookie deal was for 17 million dollars, with 10 guaranteed. That is a huge difference just in four spots even if both are making double digit millions.
Neither player played in a bowl game.
Now consider former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, the poster boy for “Don’t play in a Bowl Game”. After his life-altering knee injury, he was drafted 34th overall in the 2nd round by the Cowboys after being considered a top five or ten prospect. That’s still very high considering what happened to his knee and the prospects of him never fully recovering but his NFL rookie deal totals just over six million dollars with very little of that guaranteed. Playing in a bowl game lost him roughly 10-20 million dollars.
Remember, running backs are judged on size, speed, agility and other physical skills. Barkley has the size of Fournette, the skills of McCaffery and no injury or off-the-field history like Fournette or Zeke Elliot. If you think that this season has been a disappointment for Barkley considering the expectations, remember that Fournette only started six games his senior season due to injury and rushed for roughly 800 yards. He’s as much of a lock for a Top 5 pick as you can get at that position. Playing in a bowl game would do very little to increase his draft stock.
Despite that, Barkley has said that he plans on playing in Penn State’s bowl game. While that shows character and traits that the NFL desires such as competitive drive, it’s not a smart decision. However, it’s his to make and hopefully it goes well for him. He’s be relatively injury free for his career at Penn State and hopefully that continues for one more game.