Entering 2022, the New York Giants appeared to have a difficult, emotional decision -- but an clear-cut one financially -- concerning the second overall pick from the 2018 NFL Draft: Have running back Saquon Barkley play out his fifth-year option on his rookie deal and then let him walk in free agency during the offseason. The 26-year-old looked like his wheels were falling off in the 2021 season, his first one back after missing the final 14 games of the 2020 season with a torn ACL.
The 2021 production was the lowest of his career: 856 scrimmage yards -- his first year under 1,000 when playing at least 10 games -- while shaking off the rust from the knee injury. That season couldn't have been a stronger juxtaposition of what Barkley put on tape in his rookie season. He led the NFL in with 2,027 scrimmage yards in 2018, joining Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson (1983) and Edgerrin James (1999) as the only rookies in NFL history with over 2,000 scrimmage yards. He followed that fast start year with another solid season -- 1,443 scrimmage yards -- in 2019.
Barkley shattered all expectations in 2022 Coach of the Year Brian Daboll's first season in charge with 1,650 scrimmage yards, the second-most of his career besides his rookie year, ranking seventh in the entire NFL. All due respect to 2022 NFL Comeback Player of the Year Geno Smith, who bounced back from being a career back-up until playing like a top-five quarterback this past season, but that award belonged to Barkley for putting the washed up allegations to rest. One of the more impressive factors of his bounce-back season is that opposing defenses were going out of their way to shut him down considering the Giants' receiving yards leaders were all players who were selected in the fifth round or later of the NFL Draft: Darius Slayton (724 receiving yards), Richie James (569 receiving yards), and Isaiah Hodgins (351 receiving yards).
Saquon Barkley since 2020
After totaling a career-high 1,312 rushing yards last season -- five more than the 1,307 he had as a rookie in 2018, the fourth-most in the NFL in 2022, and the most by a New York since Tiki Barber's 1,662 rushing yards in 2006 -- it's clear that the G-Men are better off keeping Barkley around as he's set to become a free agent for the first time. His quarterback, Daniel Jones, is also set to hit free agency after a career year of his own in 2022, and it's unclear how high the Giants are willing to go in negotiations with their former sixth overall pick with reports out there that he wants a contract that would pay as much as $45 million a year. General manager Joe Schoen said, via SNY, at the NFL Scouting Combine on Tuesday that he would like to avoid using the franchise tag if possible since he thinks it would be "better for the organization, Daniel and Saquon if we can get deals done without using the franchise tag."
If Barkley does get to the open market thanks to New York avoiding the franchise tag, he could have a number of suitors considering he's only 26 and had almost an entire season where he wasn't taking hits from NFL defensive players in 2020. Here's a look at some of the most likely and/or most intriguing landing spots for one of the highest-profile, in-his-prime running back free agents of the 21st century.
New York Giants
Barkley said he "wants to be part of the history and tradition here" when asked about his future with the Giants on Dec. 2. Given the success he had in Year 1 under Daboll, it would make sense for both parties to stick together on a fair per-year number across a three-year deal. Quarterback Daniel Jones has an 89.4 career passer rating when playing with Barkley and an 80.3 passer rating when not playing with Barkley. In order to keep their offensive growth moving up and to the right, New York needs to find a way to keep Saquon Barkley in their building.
Could you imagine the Chicago Bears read-option offense with quarterback Justin Fields handing the ball off to Saquon Barkley? It would be electric. Chicago has the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and they have the most cap space in the entire NFL at $98 million, according to OverTheCap.com. The Bears could easily sign Barkley and have plenty of opportunities to continue to reinforce their roster. One of the bigger reasons for leaps over the past few seasons by the Bills' Josh Allen, Dolphins' Tua Tagovailoa and Eagles' Jalen Hurts were the acquisitions of superstar playmakers in wide receivers Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, and A.J. Brown respectively. Adding a Pro Bowl running mate for Fields in addition to other offensive additions could help him make the jump from a quarterback with a few fun, jaw-dropping highlights to a quarterback who can consistently win games for his team.
It's unclear how likely the Bills could be as a Barkley landing spot given they're currently slightly over $16 million over the salary cap, but Buffalo is in great need of Barkley's services. They've tried to find a reliable rusher to save Josh Allen's legs from Devin Singletary to Zack Moss, Nyheim Hines, and James Cook, but none of them have stood out in a big way yet. Enter Barkley. Restructuring a few contracts could open up some room to sign a versatile back like the Penn State alum who is just as comfortable running between the tackles as he is going out and running routes is exactly what Allen's Bills need to become a more balanced attack.
Two of head coach Mike McDaniel's former San Francisco 49ers rushers, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr., are set to join Barkley on the free agent market in March. Instead of paying for two veteran running backs, the Dolphins could simply sign Barkley after making a few contract restructures of their own because like the Bills, they're a little over $16 million above the salary cap. If the finances worked out, McDaniel could scheme up even more game-breaking plays with a talent like Saquon running wild in all the space provided by wide receivers Tyreek Hill's and Jaylen Waddle's speed on the end of the line of scrimmage.