2022 Giants Backfield Breakdown: SadQuon Barkley

by Noah Hills · Analytics & Advanced Metrics

The 2022 Giants Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and using that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series can be found here.

I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball in general, and then dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:

Key Metrics

Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)

The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.

Box Count+

The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the amount of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.

Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)

Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.

Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)

Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.

Relative Success Rate (RSR)

Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.

Volatility Rating

Measures the disparity between a running back’s percentile ranks in BAE Rating and RSR in order to indicate how volatile a player’s per-carry performance is. High overall efficiency paired with low rate of success indicates boom/bust output, while low overall efficiency paired with high rate of success indicates steady, low-ceiling output. Measures degree of volatility, not quality of performance.

Composite Efficiency Score (CES)

Presents a single-metric overview of the quality of team-relative performance a player produced on his carries in a single season. Calculated using the average of a player’s percentile ranks in Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating and Relative Success Rate, represents player performance on a 0-100 scale.

Team Rushing Volume

In 2021, the New York Giants finished No. 25 in the league in total rushing attempts. It’s the highest they’ve ranked in that category in the four years of the Saquon Barkley era.

Based on situational play-calling, it seems they weren’t pass-heavy last season as a simple function of being a bad team. According to rbsdm.com, New York was No. 10 in the NFL in early-down, neutral Game Script situations (when win probability for either team did not exceed 80-percent) last year. Somewhat surprisingly, they actually opted to run the ball more often than expected (given league-wide play-by-play data) in almost every down-and-distance situation in 2021. And 1-percent more often than expected overall. They were relatively pass-heavy on first downs, but otherwise seemed to attempt to establish the run.

However you interpret that philosophical bent, it belongs to former head coach Joe Judge and a staff that is no longer leading the Giants. The new man in charge in New York is former Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. It’s difficult to parse through what the new regime will mean for the team’s immediate future of rushing volume. The Daboll-led offenses in Buffalo grew in pass-heaviness with Josh Allen‘s development as a thrower. Starting in 2018 (the first years in Buffalo for both Allen and Daboll), the Bills finished No. 7, No. 6, No. 17, and No. 13, respectively, in rushing attempts. Almost a quarter of that volume did come from Allen himself, as he averaged over 105 carries per season.

This is one of those situations where we really won’t know until we know.

Efficiency Numbers

Saquon Barkley missed several games with a low ankle sprain last season, and Devontae Booker took over most of the ball carrying duties in his absence. In addition to light work from Elijhaa Penny and a solitary attempt from Gary Brightwell, here are the full rushing efficiency profiles for each of the Giants running backs from last season:

Barkley gained the same amount of yards that Booker did on 17 more carries. Not only was he less efficient per-touch. He also lagged behind other Giant runners in per-carry consistency, with an abysmal 27th-percentile Relative Success Rate. That awful performance marks the third straight year in which Saquon Barkley has failed to post an RSR figure above the 40th-percentile. Even his career-best 1.5-percent mark in that area from his rookie season is in just the 59th percentile.

Not Great, Bob

Consistently generating positive plays has been a problem for Barkley since his time in college. Box count data is not available for any of his Penn State seasons. But he ripped off 10-yard runs 1.2-percent less often than other Nittany Lion running backs. And averaged only 0.10 yards per carry greater than they did over his career. Those numbers land in the 26th and 32nd-percentiles, respectively. It should be apparent that Barkley is simply not a good pure runner. He’s been volatile on a per-touch basis. And his stretches of positive efficiency have largely been fueled by athletic ability that enables him to produce big plays.

Devontae Booker has been one of the more solid, under-the-radar backs over the last few seasons. In each of the last three years and on three different teams, he has posted Box-Adjusted Efficiency Ratings in at least the 66th-percentile. In two of the last three seasons, he has paired that positive overall efficiency with down-to-down consistency. He posted RSR marks in at least the 57th-percentile in both 2021 and 2019.

On a very small sample, fullback Elijhaa Penny was one of the most efficient backs in the league last year. His BAE Rating and RSR numbers combined for a Composite Efficiency Score of 91.2. Good for fifth in the NFL behind only Najee Harris, Deebo Samuel, Jonathan Williams, and Jonathan Taylor. It was also the second time that Penny has been impressive in a small role. He posted a CES of 82.0 on 31 carries as an Arizona Cardinal back in 2017.

So Now What?

Devontae Booker and Elijhaa Penny are both free agents. They’ve been replaced in the backfield by Antonio Williams, Matt Breida, and a dude from Austria with zero career carries named Sandro Platzgummer. Both Williams and Breida follow Daboll from Buffalo, where each of them experienced some success in limited work. Williams had a 171.9-percent BAE Rating to go with a ridiculous 21.8-percent RSR on 12 carries in 2020. Breida has posted BAE Ratings in at least the 62nd-percentile in each of his five NFL seasons. Still, none of the ancillary guys currently on this depth chart should take much work from Saquon Barkley.

As of this writing, Barkley is still a mid-second round pick in dynasty startups, per DLF. If we ignore for a second that at one point the fantasy community at large was fully bought in on Barkley being the greatest running back prospect of all time, consider the following. He’s now 25 years old. He’s never been a particularly skilled or nuanced ballcarrier outside the advantages offered to him by his athletic traits. And in the past three years, he’s suffered a high ankle sprain, a low ankle sprain, and a complete blowout of his knee in which the ACL, MCL, and meniscus were all torn.

If those injuries have robbed him of even some of his athletic advantage, it seems fair to wonder how effective we can reasonably expect Barkley to be going forward.

Final Word

I’m staying far away from Saquon Barkley at his current price in dynasty. The Barkley believers are staunch and the Barkley believers are many, so it’s likely you’ll be able to find a trade partner willing to give you a palatable deal in exchange for a player they view as having elite upside. Don’t get caught holding the bag on an athleticism-reliant running back who may no longer have the athleticism necessary to be effective.