Eagles column

Was Saquon Barkley signing a brilliant move or unnecessary risk?

Howie Roseman broke from tradition in a huge way with a move that could pay enormous dividends or could backfire.

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The Saquon Barkley move is so out of character for Howie Roseman, and there are some very good reasons he had never signed a big-money free agent running back his first 13 seasons as Eagles GM.

The Eagles have always had success with cheap-o backs. In 2017, Corey Clement was an undrafted rookie making minimum wage, Jay Ajayi was on the final year of an almost minimum wage 5th-round rookie contract and LeGarrette Blount was barely making a million bucks, and those three combined for 255 yards in the Super Bowl.

In 2018, the Eagles’ leading rusher was another undrafted rookie, Josh Adams. Again, minimum wage. The other backs – Clement, Wendell Smallwood, Ajayi – weren’t making much more.

Miles Sanders arrived in 2019, and he was a 2nd-round pick, but his contract was a modest one: $5.35 million over four years. When that was up, he was gone. D’Andre Swift just signed a big contract with the Bears - $24 million over three years - but here? He was a Pro Bowler making under $2 million in 2023.

The Eagles went to two Super Bowls with budget running backs. They won a lot of games with budget running backs. They always had a top offense with budget running backs. Sanders and Swift both made Pro Bowls with cap figures around $1.7 million.

Roseman has his philosophy and it’s always worked.

And then we have $37.75 million for Saquon Barkley and everything we’ve known about Roseman goes out the window.

Barkley is an absolutely intriguing signing. When he’s at his best, he’s as good as any back in the league. 

As a rookie in 2018, he joined LaDainian Tomlinson as only the second running back in NFL history with 1,300 rushing yards, a 5.0 average and 90 receptions. In 2022, he became only the ninth player in history with two seasons with 1,300 rushing yards, 10 TDs and 50 catches.

But here’s the thing. Those have been Barkley’s only elite seasons. 

In 2019, he dropped from second in the league in rushing to 15th. In 2020, he missed most of the season with a torn ACL. In 2021, he averaged a pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry, which ranked 45th of 50 running backs with at least 100 carries. And this past year, he averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry in nine of 14 games, including his last four.

Compare D’Andre Swift’s 2023 season with Barkley’s:

Swift: 1,049 rushing yards, 5 TDs, 4.6 average, 1,263 scrimmage yards
Barkley: 962 rushing yards, 6 TDs, 3.9 average, 1,242 scrimmage yards

The Bears signed Swift for $8 million per year and the Eagles signed Barkley for $12.6 million per year.

So here’s the conundrum: When Barkley is at his best, he’s clearly a more explosive, more productive player than Swift. But not only is Swift two years younger, he’s got about half as many career touches as Barkley (1,511 to 802), he’s never had a serious injury and he’s also never had a down year, although obviously last year was his first as a full-time starting back.

Over the last four years – since Swift came into the league – 75 backs have had at least 500 carries. Swift’s 4.6 average during that span is 7th-best. Barkley’s 4.0 average during the same span is 21st-best.  

Now, there’s definitely something to the notion of Barkley escaping a losing organization – the Giants had one winning season in Barkley’s six years in East Rutherford – and getting behind a far superior offensive line, even without Jason Kelce, and getting far away from that unforgiving MetLife Stadium turf.

Barkley’s upside is astronomical. He can be as dynamic as any running back in the NFL. When he’s right, he can take over a game.

Roseman is gambling that the Eagles will get that version of Barkley, and they very well could. 

The notion of a talent like Barkley playing in an offense with Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert and behind an offensive line that should still be very good is tantalizing. Kellen Moore will find creative ways to use Barkley both as a runner and receiver. He’ll be surrounded by more talent than he ever was in North Jersey. 

Barkley has never been a part of what he’ll be a part of in Philly. The Giants were 34-64-1 with one playoff appearance in Barkley's six years. The Eagles were 56-42 over the same six years with five playoff appearances.

Just that sort of change of scenery can be huge for a guy like Barkley.

The possibilities are dazzling.

But the reason Roseman has never signed big-money running backs is because you just can’t count on them having big seasons year after year. 

Todd Gurley was an all-pro in 2018, washed up by 2020. Jonathan Taylor led the NFL in rushing in 2021 and has been average since. Ezekiel Elliott hasn’t had an elite season since he was 22. Chris Carson had his big 1,200-yard season at 25 and hasn’t done anything since. Ajayi was 23 when he ran for nearly 1,300 yards for the Dolphins. He rushed for exactly 214 yards after turning 25.

And so on.

Will Barkley buck that trend and deliver the Eagles big-time production in his mid-to-late 20s? It’s certainly possible. But it’s hardly a lock.

With running backs, you just never know. Ever.

Roseman broke from tradition in a huge way with a move that could pay enormous dividends or could backfire. The guy who rarely takes risks or goes against proven trends has just done both just a few hours into free agency.

And the stakes are enormous.

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