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Penn State’s Saquon Barkley ‘most special guy’ in NFL Draft

April 16, 2018 GMT

When the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots met in the Super Bowl, it provided ammunition for the belief teams can reach the pinnacle without investing heavily at running back.

Neither team had a 1,000-yard rusher or a back who stayed on the field for every down. And neither team had a first-round pick playing the position.

Others point to teams that recently invested top-10 picks on a running back and immediately turned around their fortunes.

The Dallas Cowboys were 4-12 in 2015, then drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick and went 13-3 a year later. The Jacksonville Jaguars went from 3-13 in 2016 to 10-6 and reached the AFC championship game last season thanks, in part, to running back Leonard Fournette, also the No. 4 pick who became a 1,000-yard rusher. The Carolina Panthers went from 6-10 to 11-5 in 2017 partially because of the contributions of Christian McCaffrey — almost 1,100 scrimmage yards — who was drafted eighth overall.

The case study this year will be former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. Not only is he the cream of the running back crop, he is viewed by some analysts as the premier player in the 2018 draft class.

Barkley’s pedigree is such that he could be the first running back taken No. 1 overall in 23 years.

“He’s the most special guy in the draft,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.

With the Cleveland Browns holding the first and fourth picks, Barkley likely won’t be around when the Denver Broncos select at No. 5. If the Browns take a quarterback at No. 1, there also is no guarantee Barkley will be around three picks later.

The New York Giants and Jets — holding the second and third picks, respectively — are in the market for a quarterback, but they also could use a game-breaking runner.

NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks wouldn’t be surprised if a team holding an early pick followed the lead of the Cowboys from 2016 and Jaguars from 2017.

“I think it depends on if the pieces are right,” Brooks said. “Ezekiel Elliott was the rushing leader (in 2016). You saw him help the Cowboys go immediately from being a team on the outside of the tournament to being a team that was a division winner and squarely in the mix as a contender.

“You look at Leonard Fournette and what his presence did for the Jacksonville Jaguars offense. Yeah, he alleviated some of the pressure on Blake Bortles to have to be a guy who was kind of driving the bus when it came to the offense.

“So yeah, a position player outside of quarterback can be really impactful. I think it really depends on the way the team is constructed.”

For the Browns, the floor plan is written in pencil after an 0-16 season. Barkley could help build the foundation for new general manager John Dorsey and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, in his first year with Cleveland after he wasn’t retained by the Steelers.

Watching Elliott and Fournette have success as rookies makes being drafted by a losing team easier to digest, Barkley admitted.

“It gives you confidence,” he said, “especially Elliott. He’s arguably one of the best running backs in the NFL. Maybe the best. He came from the same division, same conference as I came from (in college).

“He was able to have a lot of success in the Big Ten, and I was able to have a lot of success in the Big Ten. His game was able to translate to the next level, and I hope the same goes for me.”

Barkley can hope he doesn’t share the same fate as former Penn State runner Ki-Jana Carter, the last back to be chosen No. 1 overall, going to the Cincinnati Bengals in 1995. Since then, Ronnie Brown (2005) and Reggie Bush (2006) were second overall selections, and Trent Richardson went No. 3 to the Browns in 2012.

None of those players provided value for the pick, let alone became franchise saviors. Richardson, who washed out of the NFL after three seasons, is cited as the example for why teams should not use a high pick on a running back.

Mayock, though, prefers to look at more recent history, adding Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams to the list of top-10 running backs who have invigorated their team.

“I could make the case that this kid Barkley is the best of those guys, best of all five of them,” Mayock said, referring to Elliott, Fournette, McCaffrey and Gurley. “He’s clean off the field. He’ll be great in your locker room. I would be absolutely stunned if this kid doesn’t go in the top five.”

Barkley finished his three seasons at Penn State with 3,843 rushing yards and 5.7 per-carry average, along with 18 touchdowns. As a junior, he also caught 54 passes for 632 yards and three touchdowns.

He followed up by dominating the NFL Combine, which Mayock called a coronation of Barkley’s draft status.

“He helps you in every phase of the game,” Mayock said.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.