For every example of a team that regrets signing a running back to a second contract, there is a highlight of Saquon Barkley making something out of nothing for the Giants.
If the leading rushers for recent Super Bowl winners are considered little-known, most of the offensive weapons around Barkley only can be called “unheard of.”
Paying big money to running backs is one of the most divisive topics in the NFL, but what happens when the player transcends the label?
The first round of extension negotiations between Barkley, 25, and the Giants, which were held earlier this month were “encouraging,” according to sources with knowledge of the conversations. A deal was never close to being finalized, as first reported by ESPN, but more because of a time crunch created by the bye-week, in-season deadline that both sides agreed to than because the terms on multiple offers exchanged were far apart, The Post has learned.
“I think you have to extend him because of what he does for the offense well beyond just as a runner,” said Mike Tannenbaum, who has worked both sides of the table as a former NFL general manager and former agent. “I’m in the business of collecting good players and people, and I’m hard-pressed to think they are a better organization without him. He is their best playmaker by far.”
The injury issues and decreased production that followed extensions for Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott and Christian McCaffrey, as well as a free-agent deal for Le’Veon Bell, make for a mountain of red flags.
Is there an exception to the rule? Maybe for Barkley, the NFC’s leading rusher, who has accounted for 36.5 percent of the Giants’ yards from scrimmage and 31.5 percent of their touchdowns during a franchise-altering 7-2 start. Or maybe not, because two of Barkley’s first four seasons were marred by injury.
“Imagine where this Giants team would be without him: They would have no chance,” said Tannenbaum, co-founder of “The 33rd Team” think tank for analyzing NFL topics. “In this situation — because of the way that the team is built — he is the exception. He is more dynamic than Zeke Elliott.”
The top of the running back market stagnated after McCaffrey signed a four-year, $64 million contract ($16 million per year) in April 2020. Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb all signed more recent high-end deals with good initial returns.
“That means I did something good to have that conversation during the bye week,” Barkley told The Post. “When it gets brought up again, we’ll indulge in it. Until then, I can only focus on winning every game we can.”
Asked to be Barkley’s fictional representative, Joel Corry, a former NFL agent turned contracts expert for CBSSports.com, said his initial ask would be to make his client the NFL’s highest-paid running back, at about $17 million per year over four or five years. Expecting that to be rejected in part because of Barkley’s durability concerns, his real goal would be an annual average of $15 million — with more than McCaffrey’s $30 million fully guaranteed, including part of the third year.
“Saquon is the best back in the NFL,” Corry said in his pretend agent pitch. “He’s having a career year. He’s doing it with less help than any other running back who got paid because there is no other skill position player on the team that needs to be accounted for from a defensive game-planning standpoint.
“But if I’m the team, I’m saying, ‘Prove it to me. It’s a start, but what happens next year?’ ”
Corry set Barkley’s settling floor at $13 million per year, which “is more or less Nick Chubb’s deal adjusted for the [increasing] salary cap” and still represents a better option than playing on back-to-back franchise tags in 2023 and 2024. The tag is the Giants’ fallback leverage to keep him off the market, where the Bears ($110.8 million in cap space and in need of playmakers) pose a threat. In that case, Barkley likely would earn about $22 million combined in two seasons.
Barkley wants to be mentioned in the same breath as running back greats Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith and Adrian Peterson one day.
“I am a playmaker. I am a versatile weapon. But at the end of the day for me, it’s kind of just the people that I study,” Barkley said. “Those are the guys that I’m chasing.”
One league source said Barkley might ultimately have to determine the value of the New York market and being a lifetime Giant over the long haul against a slightly larger contract elsewhere. Tannenbaum suggested “a measured compromise” averaging the top five running back contracts ($14.2 million per year).
“There’s another intangible that’s really important,” Tannenbaum said. “Your locker room is going to look at the people you sign to an extension, and if you start paying people outside your organization before you pay somebody like him, it’s sending the wrong message. That’s not to say you have to overpay.”
Critics of extending running backs often mention that the leading rusher on the winning team in the last 13 Super Bowls was paid an average salary of $1.09 million during the championship season. A one-size-fits-all approach with no room for nuance doesn’t apply to the Giants, who lack the same passing attack most of those teams featured.
“Nobody wants to make the move,” one NFL running backs coach said, “but everybody is looking for McCaffrey or Barkley.”