Thursday, March 23 2023

Saquon Barkley wants to be one of the highest-paid running backs in the NFL.

And he’s certainly making a good case for it.

Fresh off the bye week, during which his agent had some preliminary talks with Giants management about a long-term contract, the 25-year-old Barkley did more of what he’s been doing all season long. He carried the Giants offense, rushing a career-high 35 times for 152 yards and a touchdown as New York beat the Houston Texans 24-16 to improve to 7-2.

That brings Barkley to 931 rushing yards in just nine games in a season that began with the running back having everything to prove. He needed to prove he could stay healthy after three injury-plagued seasons that included a torn ACL and two sprained ankles. He needed to prove he was still an electric player, coming off a dismal 593 rushing yards last year.

And maybe most importantly, with a new coaching staff and management team in place in New York, Barkley had to prove his worth in the final year of his contract. He needed to show the coaches and front office that he’s worth whatever financial risk he’ll eventually ask them to take.

More than halfway through the season, he’s done all of that and more.

“He looked good to me,” said the Giants’ ever-understated head coach Brian Daboll. “He looked fresh. Obviously he’s having a good season for us. He had a good day.”

“He loves those opportunities,” added quarterback Daniel Jones. “He loves the opportunity to take over a game and play as well as he did.”

Barkley played great, even if Daboll doesn’t want to say the word, and he’s having a great season. There’s really no other way to describe it. And as a result, the Giants don’t seem to have any doubt about his worth, nor is there any question about the team’s desire to keep Barkley in New York next season and beyond.

The talks last week — which Barkley acknowledged after the game — were an initial attempt for each side to gauge what the other thought of the fifth-year pro’s ultimate value. They not surprisingly didn’t come close to an agreement — the Giants weren’t expecting one, a source said, nor are they ready to make a final decision on just how big a contract to give Barkley. So they agreed to table talks until the end the season, when Giants GM Joe Schoen has already conceded the franchise tag could be in play.

That tag would be a bargain the way Barkley is playing, since it’s only expected to cost around $12 million — far less than the Christian McCaffrey-like contract (four years, $64 million, $30 million guaranteed) that a source said Barkley and his agents would like to top. But it’s complicated for the Giants, and the franchise tag might not be their first choice since they may need to use that on Jones.

But according to a team source, they are not afraid of a lucrative, long-term commitment to Barkley, despite his lengthy injury history — if that’s what they decide they need to do. They know running backs can be a risky investment, but they believe Barkley is past his injury issues, the source said. They also know he’s the most popular and marketable player on the team by far.

The most important factor, though, is that everyone is aware that Barkley is having this remarkable, bounce-back season with absolutely nothing around him. He is running behind an offensive line that, at its best, is adequate. And defenses are also loading up to stop him because the Giants’ passing attack is barely a threat.

That was really clear on Sunday against the Texans. The Giants were hoping to get a boost from the return of their $72 million receiver, Kenny Golladay, but he dropped the only two passes thrown his direction before he was benched in the second half. They did get one big play from Darius Slayton, who scored a 54-yard touchdown after Texans rookie safety Jalen Pitre ran right by him at the 50-yard line. But that was it.

Jones was his usual efficient but not explosive self, completing 13 of 17 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns. His top three receivers now are Slayton (3 catches, 95 yards), 5-foot-8 rookie Wan’Dale Robinson (2-20) and Isaiah Hodgins, who was claimed off waivers 10 days earlier (2-41). Plus, Jones has two tight ends — Tanner Hudson (3-24) and Lawrence Cager (2-9-1) — who are only getting the ball because rookie tight end Daniel Bellinger is hurt.

That’s probably the worst group of pass-catching weapons in the entire league. So it’s no wonder Barkley seems to have five defenders around him every time he touches the ball.

Yet he’s still somehow averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He’s not doing much as a receiver — just 29 catches for 197 yards — but that’s mostly because he’s drawing similar attention every time he runs a route. Nobody is mystified by how to stop the Giants offense. All they have to do is stop Barkley. And they’re all trying on every play.

But so far, nobody has really shown they can.

All of which makes Barkley’s value to the Giants impossible to calculate. Without him, their offense — and perhaps their team — would almost literally be nothing. They might be 2-7 without him instead of 7-2. It seemed almost inconceivable heading into this season that the new Giants regime would want to commit big money to a running back while dealing with limited resources and trying to fill so many other holes.

But now it’s almost inconceivable that the Giants won’t. They can’t afford to not bring Barkley back in 2023. He has been that good, that important, that indispensable.

“He’s always been this talented of a running back,” Slayton said. “He’s always been this guy. The injury stuff, there have been some questions, but we always knew that he was this guy, and I’m glad that he’s getting a chance to show it.”

He’s showing it, and proving himself, every single game. Every time he does, his price likely goes up.

“I’m just happy that we’re able to have these conversations,” Barkley said after the game. “I know how they feel about me. They spoke really highly of me. … I think I’ve kind of been vocal about how I feel about this place, what I want my legacy to be. I want to be a Giant for life.”

If he keeps playing like this, the Giants will likely do whatever it takes to make that happen — no matter how high the cost turns out to be. 

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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