The Giants chose running back Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick in this year’s draft, and from the highlights, that looks like a good pick: Barkley is first in the NFL with six runs of 40 yards or longer.
But winning through the running game isn’t primarily about breaking off highlight-reel runs. It’s about churning out first downs consistently. And on that score, the Giants are struggling mightily.
In fact, the Giants are tied for last in the NFL with just 63 rushing first downs. When it comes to picking up first downs on the ground, the Giants are actually no better this year than they were last year, when their rushing game was so bad that they allegedly needed to spend a high first-round pick on a running back, eschewing quarterback Sam Darnold, who went to the Jets with the next pick.
Although Barkley is third in the NFL in rushing yards this year, he’s 17th in rushing first downs, with just 45 this season. Thirteen running backs have gained more first downs than Barkley while carrying the ball fewer times, including Alvin Kamara of the Saints, who has run for 12 more first downs than Barkley while carrying the ball 50 fewer times.
On Sunday against the Colts, Barkley ran the ball 21 times and only gained two first downs. The Giants jumped out to a big lead early in that game but ended up losing because they couldn’t control the ball in the second half. That was when they needed their franchise running back to grind out first downs, and Barkley didn’t do it.
If the Giants are ever going to build a winning team, they’re going to need Barkley to do more than break highlight-reel runs. They’re going to need him to gain first downs consistently–something he hasn’t done as a rookie.