A better-than-expected Giants season came to an end with Saturday night's 38-7 loss to the Eagles in the divisional playoffs. The organization's focus now turns to the handling of its top two impending free agents: running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Daniel Jones.
Barkley has made it abundantly clear he wants to remain with the Giants. He also recognizes that he won't reset the running back market on a new deal.
Christian McCaffrey is the NFL's highest-paid running back. He signed a four-year contract extension, averaging $16,015,853 per year with $39,162,500 of guarantees, in 2020. McCaffrey has a running back-best $30,062,500 fully guaranteed at signing.
"I'm realistic. I know what I was on pace to do. But having two years filled up with injuries and having a season not performing to the level that I know I can perform doesn't help," Barkley said after the loss. "But I think I was able to show the type of caliber a player I am — the things I am able to do on a football field. That is something I wanted to do. That was my goal. I was able to accomplish that."
Barkley had his best season since 2018 when looked like a superstar in making during a stellar debut campaign in which he led the NFL with 2,028 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards) and earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He was fourth in the NFL with a career-high 1,312 rushing yards and had 10 touchdowns on the ground (ninth in the NFL) while playing 16 games. Barkley's 1,650 yards from scrimmage were the seventh most in the league (fifth among running backs). He has been one of the NFL's five best running backs this season.
The Giants attempted to negotiate a contract extension with Barkley's representatives around Week's 9 bye, which was in early November. General manager Joe Schoen told reporters on Monday that the two sides "weren't really that close" to reaching an agreement.
The Giants' offer to Barkley reportedly was in the $12 million-per-year neighborhood. According to Fox Sports' Ralph Vacchiano, Barkley is seeking a deal in McCaffrey territory. This isn't necessarily consistent with Barkley's statement.
Initiating contract discussions with Barkley suggested he was the Giants' top signing priority and best franchise tag candidate. Similar efforts weren't made with Jones during the season.
That may not be the case anymore. Barkley is a better running back than Jones is a quarterback but passers are more important and valuable than runners in today's NFL.
Schoen was more definitive in Jones returning than Barkley next season. He qualified his remarks when discussing Barkley.
"We'd like to have all the guys back, I really would," Schoen said. "But there's a business side to it. There's rules that you need to operate under in terms of the salary cap. Saquon, he's a good player. He's a great teammate. I loved getting to know him this season. He's a guy we would like to have back. … As far as positional value, we'll get into how we want to build this team and allocate our resources."
Schoen's comments signal that Barkley either won't continue to be a member of the Giants or will be receiving a franchise tag if adamant about a McCaffrey-type deal. There's a tie between Ezekiel Elliott and Alvin Kamara for the league's second highest-paid running back at $15 million per year. Elliott is expected to be a salary cap casualty unless he accepts some sort of pay cut to remain with the Cowboys.
The average on Kamara's five-year extension with the Saints is misleading. He has no chance of seeing the $25 million in his 2025 contract year. The deal averages $12.5 million per year through 2024, the first four new years. Next in the running back salary hierarchy is Dalvin Cook, who signed a five-year extension with the Vikings in 2020, averaging $12.6 million per year.
The Giants quickly getting a deal done with Jones would pave the way for a Barkley franchise designation. The non-exclusive franchise tag for running backs projects to 4.489% of salary cap. If the 2023 salary cap is set at $225 million, the running back number should be $10.1 million. Barkley, who turns 26 on Feb. 9, indicated he would be upset if given a franchise tag.
The franchise designation is a good value relative to the reports about the rejected offer. A second franchise tag in 2024 at an NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement-mandated 20% increase over Barkley's projected 2023 number would be $12.12 million. Over the two-year period, Barkley would make $22.22 million for an average of $11.11 million per year before hitting the open market in 2025 as a 28-year-old.
McCaffrey money would be more justifiable money with Josh Jacobs' production. Jacobs led the NFL with 1,653 rushing and 2,053 yards from scrimmage while scoring 12 times.
The appropriate range for Barkley on a multiyear contract is probably between $13 million and $14.25 million per year. There are currently eight running backs in the NFL with contracts averaging $12 million per year or more. All of the deals were for the players to remain with their own teams.
These eight deals average $13,047,526 per year with 4.375 years as the average length. The average production for the eight running backs this season was 1,135 rushing yards, eight rushing touchdowns and 1,521 yards from scrimmage in 16 games. Barkley exceeded all of these statistical marks during the 2022 season.
As one of the top-five running backs this season, Barkley has a legitimate case to insist on being one of the five highest paid at the position. Rounding out the top five is Derrick Henry. He signed a four-year, $50 million deal, averaging $12.5 million per year, with the Titans in 2020 as a franchise player. The maximum value is $51 million through incentives and had $25.5 million fully guaranteed. Adjusting for salary cap inflation, Henry's contract worth is nearly $14.25 million per year.
An agent recently told me that sometimes a fair deal is one that makes both sides a little uncomfortable. A modified version of Le'Veon Bell's unrestricted free agent contract with the Jets nearly four years ago in 2019 might qualify.
Bell signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal with a then veteran running back contract record $27 million fully guaranteed at signing, which was the first two years. There were $35 million in overall guarantees. The $13.125 million-per-year deal was worth as much as $60.15 million through incentives and salary escalators.
Bell had $1.5 million in annual incentives -- $500,000 was for at least 1,800 yards from scrimmage. He got an additional $500,000 by reaching 2,000 scrimmage yards. There was another $500,000 for the first threshold with the Jets making the playoffs.
Bell also had a $550,000 base-salary escalator in each of the last three years based on his performance in the preceding season. The three different ways to trigger the increase were getting 2,000 or more yards from scrimmage, being named the AP's NFL Offensive Player of the Year or winning the AP's MVP award.
A deal at $13.5 million per year for four years ($54 million total) is below the midpoint of the suggested contract range of $13 million to $14.25 million per year. With $7.65 million of upside, the maximum value of the contract is $61.65 million ($15,412,500 per year).
Fully guaranteeing the first two years for $27.5 million shouldn't be an issue. Henry essentially has the same percentage of his contract fully guaranteed with his $25.5 million. The Giants surely wouldn't agree to the extra $8 million of guarantees in the third year as in Bell's contract.
The incentive thresholds and dollar amounts should be fine except 1,800 scrimmage yards and playoffs could be replaced with hitting 1,400 rushing yards, which Barkley has never done in his NFL career. The escalator should be acceptable as well. Perhaps reaching 1,500 rushing yards would be an additional trigger for the escalator.