The floor is Reggie Bush; the ceiling is perched somewhere between Canton and Krypton. As projections go, the truth about Saquon Barkley probably lands somewhere in in the middle, although there’s a reason scouts become Tex Avery wolves whenever No. 26 decides to take off his shirt.
Penn State RB Saquon Barkley at 2018 Combine:
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) March 2, 2018
Before the star tailback from Penn State took the NFL plunge, the closest thing we’d had to a scouting report like that was — what, Bo Jackson? Clark Kent, perhaps?
– Faster than a speeding bullet
– More powerful than a locomotive
– Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound
Look! Up in the sky!
It’s a bird!
It’s a plane!
A plane flying over FirstEnergy Stadium towing a banner that reads:
WHY THE @#^& DID WE DRAFT SAM DARNOLD FIRST OVERALL?
You don’t overthink this.
You don’t get cute.
When a No. 1 overall pick stares you right in the face, you don’t blink.
And you sure as hell don’t look away.
“[Barkley] is more versatile than [Leonard] Fournette, and Fournette was the fourth pick in the draft last year,” longtime NFL scout Dan Shonka, GM at Ourlads.com, recently told Land of 10.
“I think the one thing [Penn State coach] James Franklin did a great job of was featuring Barkley’s ability to catch the ball, too. The kid didn’t shy away from returning kicks and flipped the field a lot of times as a returner.”
There isn’t anything No. 26 can’t do, it seems. Except rewrite history. The history that keeps slapping Barkley upside the head with the things he can’t control.
More than two decades have passed since a running back was taken No. 1 overall in the draft, when the Cincinnati Bengals — the Cleveland Browns of the 1990s — tapped former Penn State star Ki-Jana Carter right out of the chute in 1995.
Because the Bungles couldn’t have nice things, the ex-Lions tailback blew out his knee on the third carry of his first preseason contest and was never the same again. Cincinnati and Carter spent the rest of the decade in NFL purgatory, and the rest of the league took careful note not to tempt the same fate with the same investment.
Which would, in part, explain this little nugget from Tuesday night:
"I just don't think that they are on the same level as me." There's no doubt in @saquon's mind who should be #1 at the #NFLDraft ☝️#HeyRookie premieres tonight!@PennStateFball pic.twitter.com/KEyWRh30nG
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) April 10, 2018
If the sound bites that dripped from the NFL Network special on the Penn State standout raised an eyebrow, you weren’t alone there.
Been at like 100 Saquon Barkley interviews and this is the first time I've seen him be cocky. https://t.co/pQkXLSKBBX
— Andrew Rubin (@andrewrubin24) April 10, 2018
"If you think I'm the best player in the draft, take me. I wasn't the Heisman Trophy winner and this is no disrespect to any Heisman trophy winners or any guys who won awards over me, I just don't think they are on the same level as me." -Saquon Barkley on #HeyRookie @WJACTV
— Jordan Conigliaro (@JordanC_WJAC) April 11, 2018
Although, on the other hand, what was he supposed to say? “If I’m John Dorsey, I’d be a toolshed not to take Josh Allen No. 1. Besides, when’s the last time the Browns whiffed on a first-round quarterback?”
We’re so used to T’Challa Saquon when the cameras are rolling, the king, the noble soul, the humble hero, champion of the high road.
This was Erik Killmonger Saquon, a man as real as a razor’s edge, channeling disrespect into a quiet, cool assurance. The pride, the motor behind the genius, finally grabbing the microphone.
Then dropping it.
“I think the biggest thing, one of his best attributes, is that he’s always his biggest critic, so he’s always looking to get better,” former Penn State wide receiver and Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Chris Godwin said of Barkley.
“People like to tell him about himself, how great he is. But you won’t hear him talking about himself at all. He’s a humble kid.”
Usually. Ordinarily. Unless prodded by the NFL Network:
“I wasn’t the Heisman Trophy winner, and this is no disrespect to any Heisman trophy winners or any guys who won awards over me. I just don’t think they are on the same level as me.”
It ain’t braggin’ if the film backs it up.
Reviews to me from teams that have interviewed Saquon Barkley at #NFLCombine:
“Outstanding, smart, humble.”
“Great kid. Great character.”
“He’s perfect.”@coachjfranklin was right: The NFL loves the person as much as the player.
— Kimberly Jones (@KimJonesSports) March 2, 2018
So you asked Godwin, the only Nittany Lions player snapped up in the 2017 NFL Draft, why he thinks Barkley can’t miss at the next level. Godwin pondered for a few seconds and offered this:
“[Because] he works at all hours. He watches films. He studies films. Not only of himself, but he watches guys at the next level at home.”
The shelf life of an NFL tailback is scant compared to the right (insert air quotes) quarterback, the franchise quarterback. Ball carriers are as interchangeable and disposable as batteries. But unlike a rookie signal caller, the impact of a superlative running back can be felt almost immediately, a tide that instantly lifts all boats.
With Fournette in the backfield to ease the load on quarterback Blake Bortles, Jacksonville — the Cleveland Browns of the Waffle House belt — went from 3-13 to 10-6 and marched to the AFC Championship Game.
The Dallas Cowboys were 4-12 before Ezekiel Elliott turned up and 13-3 after. When Todd Gurley found another gear, so did the Los Angeles Rams.
“I’m going to get out of this business if he doesn’t go in the first round,” Shonka laughed.
“I don’t have a lot of respect for some of my scouting brethren out there. Some of the dumbest stuff I’ve seen is [former Iowa star] Desmond King going in the fifth round [in 2017, to the Chargers]. Stupidity can raise its ugly head somewhere, but yeah, [Barkley] is a first-rounder.”
You don’t overthink this.
You don’t reach.
You don’t shoot for Pluto when Mars rolls out the welcome mat.
“One of the things he’s been working on is pass protection because everybody knows he can do the other stuff,” Godwin said. “Once he puts his mind into [something] … I think his transition to the league will be pretty smooth.”
The Browns don’t deserve Saquon Barkley.
And if they pass on him, they deserve every damn thing they get.