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Where will Saquon Barkley actually go?

NCAA Football: Penn State Pro Day Eric Firestine-USA TODAY Sports

“Positions are just letters of the alphabet, but Hall of Famers are human beings,” one GM told NFL.com’s Kimberly Jones in Indianapolis. “Every draft is about the human being. If you think that human being is special, take him at 1. Don’t get hung up on the position.”

So what if that human being is a kicker? Or a punter? Isn’t Johnny Hecker a special human being? Am I being pedantic or did the quote specifically say, “If you think that human being is special, take him at 1. Don’t get hung up on the position.”? If you’re not concerned about position, I do not think you are being honest, either outwardly or with yourself. Or you are not a good GM. Quarterback is a position. Do you not see quarterback as the most valuable and important position in football? If the answer is no, you are not a good GM.

On Sunday, I wrote about NFL teams spending less and less money on the running back position, with New York Giants GM Dave Gettleman’s “the idea that the running back position is being devalued is a myth and comical to me” quote (paraphrased) as the centerpiece of that piece. Today I want to focus on the draft and specifically on the draft position of Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. A lot of coaches and GMs still outwardly claim that they’d take a running back in the top 5, but will they put their picks where their mouths are?

I’m starting to doubt that Barkley will go in the top five, though I think six is as far as he falls. Not that I agree with a running back going sixth - or that a team won’t potentially take him second - this is just what I’m seeing after reading quotes and gathering some historical data from GMs, coaches, and owners.

If teams aren’t willing to spend money and cap space (which easily comes and goes, unlike your potential once-in-a-career opportunity to draft in the top five) on a running back, why should they be inclined to take a running back over a quarterback, pass rusher, cornerback, or offensive lineman? In my opinion, they shouldn’t. Ever. Not in the top 5. Not in the top 10. Not even in the first round.

Of course, some team is going to take Barkley very early. The proof is in the fact that over the last two years, the Dallas Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott and the Jacksonville Jaguars took Leonard Fournette. I don’t agree with those choices (didn’t then, don’t now) but they were made nonetheless. The fact that on the surface those picks look to be “successes” to many evaluators will surely prompt someone to make Barkley the “next” version of one of those guys.

The Giants at two and the Cleveland Browns at four seem the obvious fits in most of the mock drafts you’ve read, but I’d still argue that the Giants have to take a quarterback and that if that happens, defensive end Bradley Chubb would still be available when the Browns are back on the board two picks later. Barkley very well could go in the top four, but I think the obviously logical choice for the teams in the top four is that they’d pass on him and he’d be a serious consideration at pick five and so on.

So what are those teams, coaches, and GMs saying about Barkley, or running backs in general, leading up to the draft? I was curious to see how many would stick their feet in the ground with the old school line of thinking that it’s still okay to build your team around a back like he’s “Jim Brown” and if any would be brave enough to say that it’s a foolish thing to do. I think the general consensus is the former, but in the form of “Well, it’s a deep class at running back,” there are perhaps more than I originally thought who could be in the latter.

Not that it’s that surprising though when you consider that they’ve already said plenty with their spending habits in recent years.

CLEVELAND BROWNS AT 1, 4

Head Coach Hue Jackson:

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley might fit the description better than any of his peers in this year’s class, and Jackson said he believes he is worthy of a top-five pick.

“Everything that I’ve seen, he is,” Jackson said. “I think he’s definitely in the conversation. Tremendous character, tremendous football player, and I think he’s going to help an organization.

“We need guys that come in and make a difference for the football team and the organization, and [Barkley] is definitely one of them. So he’ll be in the discussions as we move forward.”

Were it not for their trade with the Houston Texans last year, Jackson would not be having any discussions about Barkley. At least, not any serious ones about the possibility of Cleveland taking him, because the Browns are picking a quarterback at one. (Nobody questions the validity of taking a QB over Barkley ... “Don’t get hung up on the position,” they say. Anonymously.) Instead, because they pick fourth, Jackson and GM John Dorsey do have to address the Penn State running back and do have to be diplomatic and strategic in their responses about the possibility of taking Barkley.

But I actually don’t think they’ll do it.

As a scout with the Green Bay Packers from 1991-1998 (promoted to Director of College Scouting in 1997), Dorsey was in an organization that didn’t take a single running back in the first or second round in any of those eight drafts. They took two fullbacks in the third (see how much the game has changed in 20 years?) and running back LeShon Johnson, who had 97 rushing yards with the Packers. The standout was Edgar Bennett, a fourth round pick in 1992 who had a couple decent years.

He followed Mike Holmgren to the Seahawks in 1999 (they drafted one running back: Charlie Rogers in the fifth) and then became Director of College Scouting for the Packers again in 2000, a position he held until 2011. In those 12 drafts, Green Bay never once drafted a running back in the top 60. Dorsey was not the GM, but this was the environment he was raised in and he was giving the GM all of that direction on what to do in the draft. And out of 22 players taken in the top 60, not a single one lined up behind the quarterback.

Dorsey was promoted to Director of Football Operations in 2012, and the Packers opted to not draft a single running back that year. The highest-drafted running back during any of Dorsey’s 21 years in the Green Bay organization: Brandon Jackson, 63rd overall, 2007.

That didn’t work out too well. So even taking a stab at it one time, Dorsey and the Packers organization must have felt a little burned by the failure of Jackson to become a premium player at the position. The Packers took Eddie Lacy the year after Dorsey left and he gave them two solid seasons before becoming the player we all try to forget about now.

Dorsey finally got his own GM position in 2013 when former Green Bay colleague Andy Reid took the head coaching position with the Kansas City Chiefs. From 2013-2016, the Chiefs selected 32 players and the highest-drafted running back was Knile Davis, 96th overall. The only other RB they took was De’Anthony Thomas, and he’s not really a running back, nor is Davis.

Despite all of that, here’s what Dorsey had to say about taking a running back early recently:

“If you can make plays from any position on the field and it happens to be a running back, why wouldn’t you go acquire somebody like that?”

This isn’t your same football game as it was five years ago,” Dorsey said. “I mean, the emphasis on speed is at every level of the defense and at every level of the offense. You have to stay up with football today. You have to get faster.”

Dorsey wants to get faster, but he’s also aware that speed is specifically something that’s available in the middle-to-late rounds, especially at running back. If you want speed, Tarik Cohen and Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara all had you covered after round two in 2017. The Browns pick 33rd, 35th, and 64th, so they could use their fifth pick on a running back and it would still be just one pick later than the highest-drafted RB in Dorsey’s 26-year NFL career.

I will be very surprised if the Browns take Barkley.

NEW YORK GIANTS AT 2

Head Coach Pat Shurmur:

“I have a high opinion of what a running back brings to your offense,” Shurmur said at the NFL Combine, “but I also have a very high opinion that guy has to be able to run the ball, be able to pass protect and has to be able to catch. That’s one of things we have to get better at, catching the football. The running back can be a huge weapon in the passing game.”

If the Giants are going to consider a running back, he has to be someone who takes just as much responsibility in the passing game - if not more - as he does in the running game. This is where we are at with RUNNING backs: they have to first and foremost help the PASSING game. How do they do that? According to Shurmur, it takes more than one:

“In my mind, that’s one of those position groups that takes a village,” Shurmur said. “The best scenario in my mind at running back is when you have a No. 1 and No. 1-A.

”As a playcaller, you can’t be worried about what plays you are calling because, ‘Ah, this guy can’t catch. He can only run the ball.’ The defense knows that, too. You have to have a player who is multi-dimensional.”

With the Minnesota Vikings last year, a team that went to the NFC Championship game even after Dalvin Cook tore his ACL in Week 4, Shurmur saw the most success in the relationship between Case Keenum and his top two receivers, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. They signed Latavius Murray to a three-year, $15 million contract in 2017, then “deleted” the third year of his contract and asked him to take a paycut despite leading the team with 842 yards and eight touchdowns.

In his time with the Philadelphia Eagles, Shurmur enjoyed two years of LeSean McCoy but then oversaw the disaster of the DeMarco Murray contract, which really set the stage for teams avoiding long-term contracts with running backs in the wake of his disappointing production in that offense.

On one hand, Shurmur says things like this:

“I don’t think No. 2 overall is too high to take any player that warrants that pick,’’ Giants head coach Pat Shurmur said Tuesday at the NFL owners’ meetings. “I’m sure you’re asking about a particular running back and I don’t think so, no.’’

But on the other hand, he’s a former quarterbacks, tight ends, and offensive line coach who has centered his success around passing the football. He was also the head coach in Cleveland in 2012 when they drafted Trent Richardson — the “safe” pick — third overall, which essentially started the avalanche of negative press and attention towards taking running backs early at all.

So Shurmur has been a major part of both draft and free agent disasters at running back in the last six years. Is he really going to do that again with Barkley?

Here’s what Gettleman had to say:

“The bottom line is: Is the guy a football player?” Gettleman said. “This whole myth of devaluing running backs, I find it kind of comical. At the end of the day, if he’s a great player, he’s a great player. It doesn’t matter what position he is.”

And...

“If I’m sitting on my big cheeks looking at the board and I’m saying, ‘This guy has got it,’ really, is it hard?’’ Gettleman said.

While sitting on those buttcheeks in the Giants organization from 1999-2012 (11 years as Pro Personnel Director, one as Senior Pro Personnel Analyst), Gettleman saw New York take two running backs in the first round: Ron Dayne and David Wilson. They took one in the second round: Joe Montgomery. They took zero in the third round.

Over a period of 14 years.

Gettleman finds it “comical” that RBs could be devalued (not sure what definition of devalued he’s using but I guess it must not be in the sense of the irrefutable data that their value has gone both in free agent contracts and draft position) but maybe that’s because he was in an organization that didn’t value them that high. They had Tiki Barber (2nd round pick, 1997) and then Brandon Jacobs (4th) and then Ahmad Bradshaw (7th), so the need wasn’t as present — but also because the value was being found in mid-to-late rounds.

I think the Giants are taking a quarterback, pairing Shurmur with someone like Josh Rosen and promising him that he won’t have to go through Trent Richardson all over again. As I wrote recently, New York will be doing the rest of the NFC a huge favor if they pass on a QB for Barkley.

NEW YORK JETS AT 3

I couldn’t find much on Todd Bowles or Mike Maccagnan talking about Barkley or high picks at running backs, and the reason why is obvious: New York is taking a quarterback.

But here’s a fun fact anyways: Current Jets assistant defensive line coach La’Roi Glover was a star defensive tackle on the Saints from 1997-2001, meaning that he was there when Mike Ditka traded an entire draft for Ricky Williams.

BRONCOS AT 5

GM (who’s eventually going to force his way into HC, right?) John Elway:

“It’s a deep running back class as I’m sure you’ve heard,” Elway said. “[When we will select one] goes back into seeing how the board goes in that point in time and where everything is. It’s hard to predict where they are going to end up. It is a deep class. We feel good about the fact that we’ll be able to get a good one.”

The Broncos need running backs (they only have two under contract right now) but not as much as they need a quarterback besides Case Keenum. If they don’t like the pick of the fourth-best QB (assuming they go 1-2-3) and if they don’t trade up (Giants shopping), then the Broncos have a lot of options. If the board falls QB-QB-QB-Chubb, then Elway could pick Barkley. Or Quenton Nelson. Or Denzel Ward. Or Derwin James. Or Tremaine Edmunds. Basically, I don’t see anyone projected in this range that Denver couldn’t consider, and that includes whoever the QB4 is (Josh Allen/Baker Mayfield/Josh Rosen/Sam Darnold).

Elway has already seen that defense > offense, just look at the difference between his 2013 and 2015 Super Bowl teams. He also saw that the Broncos were successful at running back with undrafted free agent C.J. Anderson. I don’t think that Barkley really falls into the “must have” category for Elway and he’s at least pitching the idea that the RB class is deep and that there’s no need to panic early. My guess then is that the Broncos either select QB4, take the best person to help with pass defense (either Chubb if still available or a secondary player), or trade down. I think with the Bills champing at the bit to move up, a team in the top five will be able to move down again.

My guess is Denver moves down so that a team can move up. Will that team trade up for Barkley? I doubt it. Buffalo certainly wouldn’t be. Bears GM Ryan Pace has shown a willingness to trade up. John Lynch seems like a GM who declares open season on headline moves. Arizona could be desperate to add a premium player in this draft. Would any of them take Barkley? We’ll find out soon.

COLTS AT 6

GM Chris Ballard:

Chris Ballard, your thoughts on Saquon Barkley?

”Good player. We are all watching the same TV. The guy is a good player.”

And ....

“I learned early if you think a guy’s got a chance to be a difference-maker at any position, doesn’t matter, you take him,” Ballard said.

Head Coach Frank Reich:

Frank Reich, your thoughts on the Penn State running back?

“I really haven’t (evaluated him). I’ve seen a little bit of some of the players. But not even close to being ready to make a good evaluation.”

And...

“I do think you can have a bellcow,” Reich says. “I mean, obviously, in Philadelphia we did it by committee. At some level, I think there’s always a little bit of by committee.

“But in varying degrees, I think with some of what we’re going to do, in our no-huddle stuff, not that’s it’s going to be all that, but there will be strong elements of that, you do need players that can play all three downs.”

As of today, Indianapolis tops my list of teams most likely to draft Barkley, with me thinking that if he’s gone in the top five it’s because a team traded up with the Broncos. I say this even though the statements above seem rather laissez-faire about Barkley or running backs; which is likely what you would say if you didn’t want teams to know you were pretty interested in a player.

I find it fascinating that Reich said he hadn’t really evaluated Barkley ... as of March. As of March. That was last month. And the head coach of the Colts, when they had the number three pick in the draft, wasn’t evaluating a running back projected by many to go in the top three. What? Really? You were also the one team in the top four that most people said didn’t even have to evaluate a QB. There wasn’t a single night where Reich spent a few hours digging into a player that many are calling “the best running back since the guy we said that about last year”?

It may be because Reich just saw the success enjoyed by the Eagles (where he was OC) without a premium running back, but he was also in San Diego when the Chargers picked Melvin Gordon 15th overall.

And Ballard seems to be projecting that he’s take’em/leave’em with Barkley. “Good player.” I mean, I can totally disagree with the notion of selecting Barkley in the top 10 but I do know he’s more than just a good player. It definitely feels like Ballard is trying to put into the ether that because everyone knows that Barkley is great, he’s not special. “Oh, that guy? Yeah. Good player.” “What’s that? Barkley? Oh, haven’t really seen him. Yeah, I know the draft is coming up. Yeah, I know we’re one of the few teams in line to be able to take him. Haven’t really seen him. One of these nights. Hopefully. Idk ... good player.”

Instead, I believe what Reich is saying about a three-down back being important to his offensive success. Remember: Reich was the Eagles OC when they traded for Jay Ajayi last year, their leading snap-getting at running back in the playoffs. Of Ajayi, Reich said:

“I look at our game plan for this week, there’s probably not a play on there I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting his number on, as far as him learning it and knowing what to do,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday. “That speaks a lot about him as a player.”

And this:

So then why would the Colts trade down from 3 to 6 if they were set on taking Barkley? It may be that they’re seeing what I’m seeing: Barkley is not a top five pick.

Browns take a QB at 1.

Giants take a QB or Bradley Chubb at 2. (The Giants have emphasized pass rush under owner John Mara and that’s what’s gotten them to two Super Bowls with Eli Manning.)

Jets (the team the Colts traded with) take a QB.

Browns don’t take Barkley because John Dorsey has never done anything like that.

Broncos take a QB or the top defensive player.

Denver or Cleveland could trade down, but a team would almost certainly be trading up for a quarterback unless they were trying to sneak in ahead of the Colts for Barkley, but in that case, I think Ballard can feel comfortable know that his consolation prize will be Quenton Nelson, Denzel Ward, Derwin James, Tremaine Edmunds, or someone else. After all, Indy has too many needs.

The Colts are my pick for Barkley, but could a team try to trade up for him if he doesn’t fall? Or at least, I want to follow up on the question of, “Do coaches still truly respect running backs like they used to?”

BUCS AT 7

Head Coach Dirk Koetter:

“Things are different all the time,” Koetter said at the owners meetings, according to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times. “This year, all of sudden, running backs got valued. The free-agent running backs that came out this year, all of a sudden there was a big market and the price — we were in on it. We were in on at least one and the price just skyrocketed and we had a lot of other guys we wanted to sign and Jason (Licht) and Mike Greenberg have to balance that all out. The good news is, it’s well publicized, it’s a very strong running back class in the draft.”

This is such an interesting quote about running backs: “...and the price just skyrocketed.”

The only running back who was expensive this year was Jerick McKinnon, who signed a contract with the 49ers at $7.5 million per year and $10.5 million in 2018. That is indeed a lot for a running back, but it is not “a lot” in general. As you’ve seen above, a highly-paid WR or QB or DE or OL or so on makes a lot more than a highly-paid running back. The Bucs gave center Ryan Jensen an APY of over $10 million. Jensen was a backup on the Ravens until starting 16 games last season. He is a center. And Tampa Bay felt more comfortable giving him $40+ million than they did getting into a running back market that was costing $5 million on the high end once you got past McKinnon. (Likely the player they were targeting if you consider that he was the only one who “skyrocketed” and indeed, Tampa was rumored to be in on McKinnon.)

Consider that Doug Martin is making less than $1.5 million on the Oakland Raiders next season. Did the Bucs offer him a paycut before he left? Would they have paid him $2 million? Which again, is $8 million less than their center?

No, the Bucs don’t seem to think that the running back position is what it once was.

BEARS AT 8

GM Ryan Pace moved up for Mitchell Trubisky last year and for Leonard Floyd the year before. Head coach Matt Nagy spent one year as the offensive coordinator for the Chiefs, and Kareem Hunt proved pivotal to their success. Chicago claims to be committed to Jordan Howard, but I think he could be considered an over-achiever: Howard was 35th in success rate last season and has played behind an elite interior offensive line during his two years, giving him a high rate of yards-before-contact.

The Bears are a threat to take Barkley, but I do believe it will require a trade up. That’s something that could happen, but the price could be higher if there’s a strong market for trading up for a QB at 4-6.

49ERS AT 9

Head Coach Kyle Shanahan:

“It’s been proven that you can get guys later. But, that by no means makes it that I’m going to say we’re never going to draft a running back high. When you find a special one and you think that makes sense for your team, you should never hesitate to do that. A big-time running back, whether it’s Fournette, whether it’s [Arizona Cardinals RB] Adrian Peterson who was a top-10 pick, whether it was [former NFL RB] Terrell Davis in the sixth round, whether it’s [Arizona Cardinals RB] David Johnson who I think was a third rounder or [Pittsburgh Steelers RB] Le’Veon Bell I think is a second rounder, all those guys are worth top-five picks, but they were all found different places. If they came back out, if Terrell came out I promise you he’s not going in the sixth round. He’s probably going as a top-five pick and that’s one of the reasons they won a Super Bowl. You’ve just got to find who you think that guy is. There’s lots of ways to do it.”

When you would take a guy in a re-draft doesn’t matter at all. The only thing that matters is when that running back was originally drafted because that’s what that player cost to his team. Shanahan does seem to play both sides, saying he might draft a running back at whatever point it would take to acquire that particular running back. Because they signed McKinnon, that makes the Niners unlikely to take a running back early.

But I would not be at all surprised if Shanahan and Lynch were the type of duo to take Barkley early in a year when they had need and opportunity to do so; San Francisco has the highest-paid fullback (by far) and the second-highest paid running back of 2018.

RAIDERS AT 10

I don’t expect Oakland to take a running back early after committing to Marshawn Lynch and signing Martin. Jon Gruden sounds content with those two players and Jalen Richard/DeAndre Washington, though the Raiders could be in on a running back later. And if the Raiders were picking earlier, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gruden kept with that “old school” line of thinking, nor do I think that the organization would mind having a player (Rams: Todd Gurley, Chargers: Melvin Gordon) to promote as “exciting to watch” before changing cities and selling the team to a new base of fans.

That’s what I’m seeing in the top 10 and my big takeaway is basically that because I don’t see the Browns as an actual threat to take Barkley, he likely does not go in the top five. It would be interesting to see if Shurmur would risk using another premium pick on a running back after the Richardson fiasco and if Gettleman is really gonna be the GM who takes Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley in back-to-back years, even if it is on different teams. New York’s needs go so far beyond RB and they have a rare opportunity to grab a top-two quarterback to develop while they still have a capable veteran starter. And I don’t see Elway as the type to draft a running back this early after he cut ways with C.J. Anderson over a difference of a couple million dollars.

It looks like the Colts to me at six. Even if that’s not what they’re saying — what you say is important, but utterly meaningless if it’s not what you end up doing.