The overwhelming narrative leading up to the 2018 NFL draft has been that of an historic quarterback class.
QB's have always dominated draft speculation, and probably always will. And, whilst this class has the potential to be an all-time great one, there's a uniquely talented player at another position who warrants just as much, if not more attention than messrs Darnold, Rosen, Allen and Mayfield.
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is special. He's far and away the consensus top running back in this year's class, and may just be the best football player in the entire draft.
Some say the 21-year-old is the best prospect at his position since future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson came out of Oklahoma 11 years ago. It's more than 'some' in fact, it's more like 'most'; he's that good.
When you consider the quantity of incredibly talented backs that have entered the league in that time, you get an idea of just how special this footballing phenom is. Since Peterson was selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2007 draft, there have been 20 RB's selected in the first round of ten different drafts.
Not one of those picks received anything close to the near-perfect scouting evaluation that Barkley has. Not 2000 yard rusher Chris Johnson, not six-time Pro Bowler LeSean McCoy, not Matt Forte whose 14,468 yards from scrimmage are the most of any player in the NFL over the past decade.
How about Jamaal Charles and his NFL career best 5.4 yards per carry? No. 'Beast Mode'? No. Not even the electric playmaker LeVeon Bell, arguably the league's best back over the past few seasons, was lauded like Barkley.
Peterson in 2007 and Reggie Bush in 2006 are the only rushers in this millennium that have received as much hype as Barkley, though Bush's was largely due to the almost deity-like figure he had become in college football as USC's offensive spearhead rather than his projection as an all around polished prospect.
It's easy to see why Barkley is seen as such a rare talent too. His physical stature and tools are hugely impressive, and his production on the field as a Nittany Lion was simply outrageous. Barkley gained a mammoth 5583 yards and scored 53 total touchdowns in a glittering college career.
He leaves for the NFL as the all-time rushing touchdown leader in Penn State history and has a plethora of collegiate honours, including being named a consensus All American in 2017 and two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year.
All in all, he's probably an even better prospect than Peterson given his superior ability as a pass catcher and impeccable character.
Barkley vs recent first round picks
As for the NFL's best young rushers; Todd Gurley had an MVP-type campaign last season but there were serious doubts surrounding his health and ability as a pass catcher coming out of Georgia in 2015.
Leonard Fournette was a home run selection by the Jaguars with the number four pick last year, but his skillset is limited in comparison to Barkley's, particularly outside the tackles.
2016 first round pick Ezekiel Elliott is probably the closest thing to Barkley we've seen emerge from the college game in recent times, but even his wide array of physical tools weren't hailed with quite the same reverence as the Penn State back's. Additionally, Elliott had some character concerns surrounding his immaturity, which has hampered his career so far.
If anything, Barkley is a combination of all the best traits of these three star backs morphed into one freak athlete. At 6', 233lbs the Penn State standout has the imperious size of Fournette, yet ran a blazing 4.40 at the combine which is a faster time than both the Jags star and Elliott.
That also beats out some of the league's top receivers who can flat out fly downfield...
Gurley's speed is evident in Barkley's play, and he might even be faster in a straight line. The 21-year-old was the Pennsylvania state 100m champion in high school and has elite burst and elusiveness as a runner.
Barkley also posted a ridiculous 41 inch vertical, better than Elliott and Fournette (Gurley didn't test), and 29 reps on the bench. Both were positional bests at the 2018 combine.
He is extremely shifty for his size, and is on-par with Elliott as a pass catcher, with ample ability to line up in the slot and run receiver routes.
His character is also rock solid and he has an outstanding work ethic. Barkley is willing to do anything he's asked to help his team win and has an innate desire to be the best in the game.
Future face of the league?
Barkley doesn't just want to be the best running back in the NFL, he wants to be the face of the league for the foreseeable future.
He seemingly has all the attributes, both on and off the field, to rise to such a status in the future but that's easier said than done. However, he's taking steps in terms of his representation to bolster his public image, signing with prominent talent agency Roc Nation.
Barkley already has an endorsement with Nike and he's doing countless interviews and photoshoots. All of which he genuinely seems to enjoy.
Usurping a young crop of talented, and well liked quarterback's as the true face of the NFL will be exceedingly difficult though. When the likes of Brady and Rodgers are long gone, there will be a race to take their place.
That race has already started for Carson Wentz, Derek Carr, Deshaun Watson and non-quarterback stars like Odell Beckham Jr.
Even the rookie QB class in 2018 will have a head start on Barkley because of their positional exposure, but the star running back has his own plan.
“The thing I want to do is build an image around myself,” Barkley told Sports Illustrated's Ben Baskin.. “And do that safely and smartly.”.
According to Barkley's college coach, James Franklin, the 21-year-old has long been interested in more than just football and has always had an interest in how to make the most out of his future stardom and finances.
“For some guys that’s too big,” Franklin said. “But Saquon is doing these things at an age when most people aren’t. He’s been studying people that are successful for a long time.”
But, even with his apparent nouse for finance and marketing, to become the face of the NFL as a running back will be challenging to say the least. Only OJ Simpson can truly be said to have done that in the history of the league.
In order to maximise his exposure, his Roc Nation team don't want him to go number one overall to the Browns. Instead, they're hoping he falls into the lap of Giants at number two, where he could play in the world's media capital and become a bonafide star on and off the field. In that situation, Barkley could be different to all the past greats that haven't been able to elevate to face of the league status.
What the All American running back thinks separates him from the rest is his impeccable character, and the lack of a glaring weakness in his game.
“With me, I can confidently say there is no but.” he says when pondering the question of if he is the best player in the draft.
Longtime NFL talent evaluator Gill Brandt agrees, saying: “He has a 100% chance of being an All-Pro. He’s the best player in the draft.”
Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin also believes Barkley is special, and told him: “You get guys that have my type of potential every year, but every once in a while you get a guy like you that comes into the league.”
High praise from one of the best backs of all time.
Barkley is different. He's a special player and human being, and there's very little doubt he's going to be one of the best backs in NFL history providing he stays healthy.
If anyone can crack the hegemony of quarterback popularity, it's Saquon Barkley.
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