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July 04, 2024

The Giants and HBO's Hard Knocks: A look at how Saquon Barkley became a free agent

The Giants front office essentially dared the Eagles to sign Saquon Barkley – and they did.

Eagles NFL
Saquon-Barkley-Eagles-Run-2023 Vincent Carchietta/USA Today

Saquon Barkley, as a Giant

The New York Giants are the subject of HBO's Hard Knocks series, and the debut episode, which now shows more of the offseason as opposed to just training camp, featured a heavy dose of new Philadelphia Eagles running back Saquon Barkley.

I watched the episode in its entirety, transcribed the Barkley parts, and laid them out in chronological order below. I found it to be an interesting look at how a division rival came to the decision to let Barkley walk in free agency.

The discussion starts with whether the Giants should franchise tag Barkley at a little over $12 million. They don't want him on their roster at $12 million, and they're trying to figure out if another team would (a) take Barkley at that price, while also (b) giving up something in trade capital to get him. If the Giants tag him, can't trade him, and Barkley has already signed his franchise tag, then they'd be "stuck with him" at $12 million for the season.

The first scene was with general manager Joe Schoen and Director of Pro Scouting Chris Rossetti, who introduces the idea of franchise tagging Barkley and then trading him.

"Did Saquon have his best year? No, and I think he'd say that same thing," Rossetti said. "The other guys on the tag (Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard) didn't either, but out of the guys, traits-wise, he had the most. Put him behind the Detroit offensive line, put him behind the Philly offensive line, there might be more value to another team, that they'd be willing to give up a pick or an asset to get him."

Interestingly, Rossetti identified the Eagles as a team likely to see Barkley as a potential impact player in their offense. 

In the next scene that isn't necessarily about Barkley, but is a tangential discussion related to him, Schoen is discussing the failings of the offensive line in front of Daniel Jones.

"The reality is, facts, (Jones had) three serious injuries in two years," Schoen said. "We need to protect ourselves. He didn't have much of a chance this year. That's legit. The four core guys who were going to play together played less than 60 snaps together. Against Miami, we had three f****** practice squad guys playing for us. You could have Pat Mahomes and he can't f****** win behind that.

"I'm not giving up on him. He's under contract for three more years. Just protecting ourselves because the best predictor of the future is the past."

Lol. Stop. First of all, don't even bring Mahomes' name into the equation.

But also, this is Schoen's third offseason as the general manager of the team. He's blaming the pitfalls of the offense on a bad offensive line, but the reality is that the O-line's best player, LT Andrew Thomas, was a Dave Gettleman draft pick.

The rest of the starters last season were all brought in by Schoen, and two of his acquisitions — Mark Glowinski as a high-priced free agent and Evan Neal as the seventh overall pick in the 2022 draft — were both huge misses.

He also seems to be blaming injuries along the offensive line, which might make for a better argument if they weren't awful from the start of the season, when Daniel Jones took an absolute beating in a 40-0 Week 1 loss to the Cowboys.

Anyway, continuing on, we see Schoen discussing running backs with former player Frank Gore and NFL agent Malki Kawa at the East-West Shrine Game.

Gore: "Do y'all care about guys who are coming out older?"

Schoen: "Depending on the position. Quarterback, I don't care. How much wear and tear do you have? I mean, you look at Saquon. Saquon had 900 carries at Penn State, plus six years in the NFL, you have to start saying, bang for your buck. 

Kawa: "Am I right or wrong? At age 27, you start to look at it like running backs after that, does their speed...

Schoen: "Yeah, the data says that."

Gore: "He's very talented."

Schoen: "He is. Yeah, I don't know. We tried to get something done last year and we weren't able to. We could franchise Saquon again for 12 (million) this year." 

To begin, it's funny that Schoen doesn't recognize his audience here. He's talking about 27-year-old backs like they're geriatrics to a guy in Gore who played in the NFL until he was like 60 years old (estimated). Gore was having none of it, stating, "He's very talented."  

Schoen notes that he could tag Barkley, but it's pretty clear by now that he has made up his mind that he won't. He then debriefs owner John Mara on his plan for Barkley.

Schoen: "March 5th is the franchise tag deadline. We just met about it, because we're not going to franchise him, like it doesn't make any sense to franchise him."

Mara: "Unless you think you can trade him after."

Schoen: "Right, and then could we get something and trade him, what are we really gonna get unless it got down to like $7 million? And I don't want to offer that, because I don't want to be like (air quotes) we disrespected him. There's 31 teams. It only takes one to maybe being open to doing something. If it doesn't get to that, we're going to do the right thing. We're going to let you hit free agency, find out your market, come back, and let us know if we can match it. If we can we'll have discussions."

Mara: "In a perfect world, I'd still like to have him back, until we can prove that we can have a decent offense without him."

Schoen: "Daniel is making a lot of money, and we have to figure out, 'Is he the guy,' so we have to protect him. We need to put resources there. We have Darren Waller, Daniel Bellinger, Wan'Dale Robinson, Jalin Hyatt, Darius Slayton... we'd have to find a running back, but upgrade the offensive line, give him a chance."

Mara: "That would force us to take a running back in the high to mid (rounds of the draft)." 

Schoen (interrupts): "Or we can sign one. There's going to be guys, if we're patient, that end up shaking out. Devin Singletary, who was in Houston, played for 2.75 this year. Joe Mixon may be a cap casualty, Saquon, Jacobs, Pollard, Ekeler. That's six guys right there that are free agents. How many clubs really need running backs where they'll invest resources in the position? Second week of free agency I think there will be some value guys, specifically at the running back position."

Mara: "Yeah I wouldn't commit to that that though" 

Mara makes the all-important point that Barkley has been the only good thing in the Giants' offense over the last half decade. (When healthy, of course.)

Schoen thinks that there will be bargains at running back in the second week of free agency.

And finally, in the most entertaining scene of the episode, in my opinion, Schoen is meeting with Rossetti, Senior VP of Football Operations and Strategy Kevin Abrams, Assistant GM Brandon Brown, Assistant Director of Player Personnel Dennis Hickey, and Director of Player Personnel Tim McDonnell.

Schoen: "Franchising and trading him, I don't think is realistic."

Rossetti: "Are we positive that nobody is going to pay him that kind of money?"

Schoen: "Never gonna know that... Who would you say would go sign a running back to that dollar amount?" 

Rossetti: "I mean, any team that has that kind of money to spend."

Schoen: "There's a lot of running backs in free agency."

Rossetti: "Yeah, but are there any potential difference makers, really, after you watch the film?"

Abrams: Even if Saquon is No. 1 on your board, do you imagine anyone is going to have such a gap between Saquon, Jacobs, Pollard, Henry, whoever else, that they're going to want him at $12 million per year, minus whatever we're willing to eat, and send a draft pick?

Schoen: "Right, and then if we did, what would somebody realistically give up?"

Brown: "I just think that all the teams in need of a running back are going to look at, Saquon, do you feel good about eating $3-4 million for a fifth-round pick? I wouldn't."

Schoen: "There's no guarantee we can trade him. So, having the needs that we have and a $12 million, 27-year-old running back."

Hickey: "Trading Saquon is a Hail Mary. And the drama and all that goes with it, we did that last year."

Schoen: "Ten years off my life. Emotionally, that was draining. We spent a lot of time on it, but again, I don't want that to be the reason we don't do what's best for the franchise."

McDonnell: "So to take this a step further, if we lose Saquon, right, what's our identity going to be on offense now? Like, what's our plan? What's the next step of that, I guess is what I'm thinking. We're losing a large part of our offense, our explosiveness, our touchdowns. The quarterback, if it's Daniel, depends on the run game."

Schoen: "We upgrade the offensive line, and we're paying (Jones) $40 million. It's not to hand the ball off to a $12 million back. My plan is to address the offensive line at some point here in free agency. We're sitting at the (6th overall pick in the draft). There's a good chance there will be an offensive weapon there. This is the year for Daniel. The plan all along was to give him a couple of years. Is he our guy for the next 10 years, or do we need to pivot and find somebody else?"

McDonnell asks a hard question that implies that Jones is not a quarterback who can win without a lot of help from the run game. Any common football fan can see that, of course, but there's your confirmation that Jones has his doubters within the building.

Schoen's response should be terrifying to Giants fans. This is Jones' sixth year in the league. He's 27 years old. They already gave him a $40 million/year contract a year ago, and NOW they're trying to see if he can be the franchise guy? Like, shouldn't they have decided that before hitching their wagon to him?

As it turned out, the following happened in Giants free agency:

• The Eagles were indeed willing to pay Barkley money above the franchise tag number, contrary to Schoen's read of the market.

• There was a run on running backs early in free agency, forcing Schoen to overpay Singletary on a $5.5 million/year deal on Day 1, when he thought there would be bargains in the second week. Again, he misread the market.

• In free agency they signed a pair of guards, Jon Runyan and Jermaine Eluemunor, for a combined $17 million per year. Neither player is special, by any stretch, and they are the types of players that can be acquired with extreme ease.

To be determined if Barkley ends up being a good player for the Eagles. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. If he is, this Hard Knocks series is going to look awful for Schoen and the Giants in hindsight.

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