When the New York Giants drafted Saquon Barkley in the 2018 NFL Draft, they believed they were picking up an elite running back. A running back with so much talent and potential that he would eventually break all the records that Giant great Tiki Barber had established. All of that changed in September 2020 when Barkley injured his ACL against the Chicago Bears. The question that the Giants face now is: Can Barkley return to his explosive, speedy form?
Before the ACL injury, Barkley was considered one of the up-and-coming talents in the NFL at the running back position. In his 2018 rookie season, he compiled over 2000 all-purpose yards, a feat only two other running backs have accomplished in their rookie seasons. Those two running backs are Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson (in 1983) and Edgerrin James (in 1999).
In his sophomore year in the NFL, Barkley was slowed by some nagging injuries. He still managed over 1,000 rushing yards and over 400 yards receiving. Barkley was also missing the flare and elite talent he exhibited during his rookie season, but still, a top-tier NFL running back.
Running backs coming off such a severe knee injury have had varied successes in returning to form. Some success stories are players like Adrian Peterson and Dalvin Cook, who returned from ACL injuries to have great careers. Peterson went on to have four seasons of over 1,000 yards, including 2012 when we went for over 2,000 yards. Dalvin Cook, who was a highly drafted running back in 2017, also had an ACL tear, but during his rookie season. Cook went on to rush over 1,000 yards in both 2019 and 2020. So there is hope that Barkley can regain his elite form.
There are some cautionary tales: players like Rashard Mendenhall, Terrell Davis, and Jamal Anderson. Mendenhall was out of the league just two seasons after his ACL injury in 2012. Davis managed to stay with Denver for three seasons but never got close to the player he was during his 2,000 yard campaign in ’98. Anderson suffered two injuries, one in 1999 and a second in 2001. He never played another down after the 2001 season.
On average, running backs coming off ACL injuries average over one yard less per carry and over two touchdowns less per season (based on OJSM study). So the statistics are not on Barkley’s side. He could be the next Adrian Peterson and rush for 2,000 yards. He could also fall into the category of Mendenhall and Davis and never be the same player. Only time will tell which side of the fence Barkley will fall.