By Ernie Palladino
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Given their draft positions and the respective situations under center, it’s perfectly normal for the No. 2-picking Giants and the Jets at No. 6 to focus on a talent-rich quarterback crop.
Still, there’s no guarantee that either team grabs a gem from a first-round list that officially welcomed USC’s Sam Darnold and UCLA’s Josh Rosen this week.
With the Giants positioned to take one or the other, and the Jets making noises about Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner who stands with fellow second-tier talents Lamar Jackson of Louisville and Josh Allen, the only sure thing is that if the teams don’t take one of those guys, the New York fans at AT&T Stadium in Dallas may just tear down the joint.
Unless — and this is a big unless — one of them lands Penn State running back Saquon Barkley.
He’s about the only non-quarterback that would save that big, beautiful building from untold horrors as it hosts its first draft. He’d be a totally safe pick for either team; a running back ready to plug-and-play from Day 1, blessed with amazing ability and outstanding bloodlines.
What’s more, Giants new general manager Dave Gettleman called Barkley a “wow” talent. And anyone who watched multiple-time world boxing champion Iran Barkley’s great-nephew in the Nittany Lions’ 35-28 in over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl would have no choice but to agree.
It’s not going to be a question of whether the Giants or Jets can get their so-called quarterback of the future. And it won’t be about need, either. With Eli Manning at 37, well into the back end of his career, and the Jets perhaps readying for another season of 38-year-old place-saver Josh McCown, both teams certainly have a need for the definitive arm.
But whether that’s Darnold or Rosen, or Mayfield or Jackson or Allen depends on how deep Gettleman’s or Mike Maccagnan’s love goes for any of them. Though respectful of all their talents, not one has yet garnered the same professions Ernie Accorsi had for Manning when he called him a “once in a lifetime” talent in 2004, and then moved heaven and earth to get him in a draft-day trade after the Chargers had picked him at No. 1.
The Giants got two Super Bowl wins for Accorsi’s decision. The Chargers? Philip Rivers has given them relative zilch during his 14 years in the league.
Quarterbacks are like that. For every Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger or Eli, there’s an Akili Smith or E.J. Manuel or Robert Griffin III — can’t miss guys who miss.
Barkley has the can’t-miss tag, too. Only, running backs are a lot more predictable than quarterbacks. He’d be a nice addition to either team.
The Giants’ backfield is in disarray, thanks to injuries and the precipitous dip the once-promising Paul Perkins showed. Orleans Darkwa had a decent season, given the horrible state of the blocking, but excites no one. Bilal Powell remained a tough running back for the Jets, and Elijah McGuire had moments. As for Matt Forte, he is 33, coming off an injury-plagued season, and isn’t expected back.
Barkley, though, has some incredible attributes. Outstanding foot speed allowed him to outrun most college defenses, as he did on his 92-yard run in the Fiesta Bowl. That won’t happen in the NFL, of course, because everyone is fast up there. But he also showed the ability to hit fast-closing holes, which is exactly what differentiates a good pro running back from a great collegiate one.
He catches the ball, as shown by his 85-yard touchdown catch-and-run against Georgia State, and a one-handed grab against Indiana after which he made three tacklers miss.
He hurdles defenders. He started the Nittany Lions’ 39-38 loss against Ohio State by taking the opening kickoff 97 yards to the house. And then followed it up the next game against Indiana with a 98-yarder on the opening kickoff.
No doubt, the NFL has become a pass-first league. Both the Giants and Jets need their quarterback of the future. It all depends on whether Gettleman or Maccagnan view any of the current crop as that person. If they pick one, they had best be right, lest they set their franchises back half a decade or more.
If they have any doubts, go with Barkley.
He’s ready to play right now. And, after all, successful teams still need a ground game.
Even in a throw-first league.
Please follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino