INDIANAPOLIS — Penn State's Saquon Barkley has a chance to be the first overall player selected in the draft, a feat last pulled off by a running back 22 years ago, when the Cincinnati Bengals used the top pick on another former Nittany Lion, Ki-Jana Carter.
Barkley, whom PFW draft expert Greg Gabriel graded as a top-five prospect in the 2018 NFL draft class, is the increasingly rare breed of feature runner who's equally electrifying using strength, speed and suddeness as a runner, receiver and returner.
The 5-foot-11, 223-pound Barkley aced his first combine test on Thursday, tying Georgia's Nick Chubb with 29 (!) bench reps at 225 pounds to lead all RB prospects. Barkley also charmed the media in a polished and articulate 15-minute interview session, proving to be as dynamic off the field as he was during three record-breaking seasons in Happy Valley.
"I try to be a versatile player," said Barkley, who finished his three seasons at Penn State as the school's all-time leader in total touchdowns (53) and all-purpose yardage (5,358) while improving his receiving output each season. "I’m very confident in myself. Whether the ball’s on the 1-yard line or the 99-yard line, I like to think I can find a way to get into the end zone.
"I can do it all. I can go over top of you. I can beat you with speed. I can beat you with some wiggle. I can run through you."
But is a running back who can do it all worthy of being the first overall pick? One NFL source told PFW that the media makes too much of the question. If he's a great player, the scout said, the position doesn't matter, at least not in his evaluation, as it's his job to identify who'll be the best NFL player through his rookie deal spanning a maximum of five seasons.
To wit: Myles Garrett, whom the Cleveland Browns selected first overall last April, signed a rookie contract containing nearly $30.5 million guaranteed over four seasons. Of course, Garrett rushes the quarterback, a skill that's pretty much universally agreed upon as the second-most valuable in football behind throwing it.
But, as Los Angeles Rams GM Les Snead — who selected reigning Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley at No. 10 overall in 2015 — explained Thursday, in most instances no player other than the quarterback touches it more than a feature runner.
"I think the value of the running back gets more important when he’s one of your more important offensive weapons, and how a coach can use him," said Snead, whose Rams offense was built masterfully by Sean McVay around Gurley.
"When we were in high school, who touched the ball the most? The running back. And I think it’s probably that way still in the NFL, so it’s always been a very important position."
Obviously, more touches means more licks from NFL defenders, and it's the shelf life of backs more than doubting their early impact that will cause trepidation for some teams about spending such a high pick on one, especially in a class with rare depth.
Nonetheless, Leonard Fournette and Ezekiel Elliott — the fourth overall picks, respectively, the past two seasons — led their clubs to the playoffs as rookies. And Gurley, who won Offensive Rookie of the Year on a bad Rams team, was their identity in last year's breakthrough.
And with the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts picking first, second and third, respectively, and all in the market for a foundational back to take pressure off of questionable quarterback situations, it's easy to envision one of them becoming enamored with the potential Barkley has to transform an offense.
For his part, Barkley maintains he doesn't care where he's drafted, even as he more and more seems like a shoo-in to become the third back in as many years to slot into the top five overall picks. Two of those — Nos. 1 and 4 — belong to the Cleveland Browns, a team that Barkley clearly has done his homework on.
"That would be awesome," he said of possibly going first overall to Cleveland. "Any team that wants to draft me and bless me with the opportunity to play for their franchise is a blessing.
"... If you go to a team like that, obviously, they’ve had some rough years. But I think they’re just a couple of pieces away. They do have a lot of young talent. They’ve brought in a new offensive coordinator. They only won one game, but they were in a lot of games. You want to be a part of something like that. Something that’s bigger than yourself. Something that will leave a legacy. Being a part of something special."
It takes a special back to crack the Round One conversation these days, never mind entering the discussion at No. 1 overall. There's no question Barkley is special. We'll find out soon enough just how special clubs view him.