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Once upon a time, the Giants rewarded an oft-injured game-breaker with a new top-dollar contract after he opted not to hold out from training camp in his fifth season.
That tricky Odell Beckham Jr. negotiation from 2018 looks like child’s play compared to what’s ahead for the Giants and Saquon Barkley, whose once-ideal marriage has been turned so far upside down by injuries in the past two years that it’s no longer possible to distinguish the best-case and worst-case scenarios for either side.
Barkley got his wish this offseason when the Giants never seriously considered trading him for much-needed salary cap relief, but there was never any public pressure to extend him as the highest-paid player at his position like there was when Beckham Jr. was entering his walk year. Certainly no thought of a holdout.
Chalk it up to the difference of running back-versus-receiver and the realization the Giants are not on the cusp of a deep playoff run, as was the delusion four years ago. So, what does the future hold for Barkley and the Giants? Here are the possibilities:
Barkley plays well and is re-signed
It’s not as crazy as it sounds for Barkley to get back to his 2018 form of 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns from scrimmage.
One school of thought is some players don’t return to full strength until the second season after a major knee injury like the one Barkley suffered in September 2020. Another factor is Barkley finally is in an offense capable of using his diverse rushing and receiving skills rather than misfitting him like a 1990s-style I-form power back.
If this happens, the Giants must decide if they want to be the latest team to reset the running back market. There will be shouting from both sides of the fence: Critics who point to a poor return on investment for the Rams (Todd Gurley) and — so far — for the Cowboys (Ezekiel Elliott) and Panthers (Christian McCaffrey), as well as proponents who see Barkley as both an elite playmaker and face-of-the-franchise marketable star with the values co-owner John Mara cherishes.
Analytics say running backs break down around age 30, but Barkley still will only be 25 years old when the 2022 season ends.
Barkley plays well and is not re-signed
How much does a great running back impact winning? Of the 12 teams paying the highest salaries to running backs in 2021, only three made the playoffs. Since 2009, the average salary of the leading rusher on the winning Super Bowl team is only $1.09 million, according to CBS Sports.
The franchise tag ($13 million) might be an option, though the Giants could need that security blanket to keep quarterback Daniel Jones from free agency. And asking Barkley to bypass long-term security to play on his fifth-year option and then a franchise tag in back-to-back years could create the type of bad blood that has been deftly avoided to this point.
The downside in letting Barkley leave as a free agent is three-fold: Criticism for not getting anything in return for one of the roster’s few assets, reliving the 2018 decision to pass on quarterback Josh Allen and offensive lineman Quenton Nelson to draft Barkley, and the fear that he fulfills his Hall of Fame potential elsewhere.
A true pessimist might say that the Giants allowed Barkley’s success to lead to wins and worsen 2023 draft position without any long-term gain.
Barkley plays well but the Giants start poorly
Given Daniel Jones’ inconsistencies, the undermanned secondary and the reliance on inexperience on both sides of the line, Barkley could be sensational and the Giants still could start 2-6 or 1-7 for the fifth straight season. The Giants are 5-7 when he rushes for 100 yards and 2-5 when he has more than 70 yards receiving in his career.
In this scenario, it would become obvious whether the Giants’ thinking in holding on to Barkley in March was that his value would be higher before the Nov. 1 trade deadline than it was in the offseason. The Giants would need to know by then what Barkley’s asking price will be in free agency.
Paying big for running backs is not what Giants general manager Joe Schoen was exposed to in his role as top lieutenant with the Bills. The Rams traded fourth- and sixth-round picks for a 2021 season of renting Sony Michel before free agency — and Michel’s ceiling is nowhere close to Barkley’s.
Barkley plays poorly or isn’t healthy
It’s almost impossible to foresee a scenario in which Barkley struggles but the Giants win often. He’s still that important.
If he is no better than last season — when he rushed for a career-low 3.7 yards per carry — or he adds significantly to the 22 total games missed due to injury over the last three seasons, then the writing is on the wall for going separate ways.
But the Giants will have wasted $7.2 million in cap space that could have been dumped in March and maybe used to salvage cornerback James Bradberry. They will have nothing but a dreadful five-year record to show for the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft.