RSP Film Room No. 121: RB Saquon Barkley (Penn State)

Matt Waldman’s RSP examines the decision-making flaws of 2018 NFL Draft prospect RB Saquon Barkley.

Big, fast, agile, creative, and versatile, what if I told you that Saquon Barkley wasn’t a sure thing as an NFL starter? Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

After all, the tools are tremendous. Watch enough tape and it appears that Barkley is capable of the awe-inspiring on any given play.

He is. So were Laurence Maroney, Bryce Brown, C.J. Spiller, Reggie Bush, and Knoshown Moreno. While Bush and Moreno had productive NFL careers, none of these Saturday stars were nearly as good on Sunday for a common reason that has nothing to do with physical or technical skills.

They all lacked maturity as decision-makers. All four backs had film that showed they knew the wisest course but they often ignored it – Barkley included. Since high school and for the majority of their college careers, they knew they were the quickest, fastest, most agile and creative players on the field.

I know. I’ve met with several NFL backs that went through this evolution from athlete to professional. They exploded onto the college scene only to gradually learn that as the level of competition increased, their athletic dominance diminished.

They had to become wiser and smarter. It meant playing within the context of the blocking scheme and basing risky decisions on field position, down-and-distance, and the score of the game.

The gap in athletic ability and savvy on Saturdays and Sundays is still great enough that running backs with NFL physical talent can thrive mostly on athletic ability in 70-90 percent of their college games because these opponents have a lower percentage of NFL caliber prospects on the field.

However, it’s when these backs face college defenses fielding a high percentage of NFL-caliber players that we learn if they will play wisely. So far, Barkley hasn’t consistently done so. Like the others, he often tries too hard to be the hero. If backs don’t learn their lesson when they enter the NFL, Sundays can be a rude awakening.

Barkley should be as close to a sure thing as it gets and if you want the back with the highest potential for the greatest reward, he’s likely at the top of the list this year. However, the lack of decision-making maturity is a risk-reward that carries a little more risk.

LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, and Alvin Kamara are great examples of Saturday heroes initially lacking Sunday maturity. However, they learned their lessons fast enough to become consistent, impactful pros within their first two seasons in the league.

In today’s RSP Film Room, we’re examining plays from 2017’s matchup with Ohio State illustrating that Barkley often knows what the right choices are but tries too hard to be the hero in the wrong moments. How soon Barkley addresses this problem and how patient his new team’s staff will be with him will determine how big of an impact he makes immediately.


For analysis of skill players, get the 2018  Rookie Scouting Portfolio, now available for pre-order. If you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2018 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 each.

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