Friday 22/06/2018 - 06:09 pm


"Say-Say": Penn State RB Saquon Barkley poised to present Browns debate atop draft


2018.02.27 03:22

Next up, on the brink of perhaps becoming the hottest new phenom on the NFL stage, is the electric running back from Penn State, Saquon Barkley.

Runs with the persona of a Ferrari and a freight train wrapped in one. Snags passes with the fluidity of slot receiver. Sees himself as representative of the “Mamba Mentality” that Kobe Bryant created. Sounds so equipped to be the “face of the franchise” — even in a quarterback’s world.

Memo to the Cleveland Browns: You could regret passing on this guy, too.

The Browns have the No. 1 pick in the draft (again). And, yes, after passing on Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson in the past two drafts, they enter the offseason needing a franchise quarterback (again).

However, they also need an impact player like Barkley, a 230-pound threat to go the distance on any given snap and surely qualified to buck the leagues quarterback-centric value model and become the first running back drafted first overall since Ki-Jana Carter in 1995.

“Does that No. 1 spot matter? No. To be honest with you, I don’t care if I was No. 1, No. 72 or if I were ‘Mr. Irrelevant,’ “ Barkley, 21, contended during a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY Sports as he prepared to head to Indianapolis for this weeks scouting combine.

“It’s not going to change who I am. I motivate myself. You’re not going to change my work ethic.”

Maybe that response is why Tom Shaw, the renowned performance trainer, labels Barkley as “the most humble running back I’ve ever been around.”

By the same token, “Say-Say” (the nickname Barkleys parents tagged him with as a baby) knows.

Cleveland, which also holds the fourth overall pick, could wait a few selections on a quarterback. The Browns may also swing hard to lure a passer in free agency. But Barkley, almost universally considered as the best prospect in the draft, won’t be there at No. 4.

"I’m not naïve,” he said. “I’m not a fool. I see the mock drafts. I see the projections and stuff like that.”

Humble, yes, but intensely competitive, too.

As he spoke last week, Barkley had just come off the field at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where he has been Shaw’s star pupil since early January. While Shaw’s program is designed to lay a foundation for longevity, the short-term benefits — including the explosive speed work and focus on techniques in the 40-yard dash — are about to be put to the test in Indy.

At Penn State, Barkley was once hand-timed at 4.33 seconds in the 40. If he can come close to that blazing time Friday — while carrying those 230 pounds — imagine how it would fuel draft buzz.

“My goal is to be in the 4.3s, 4.4,” Barkley said. “That’s what I’m working my butt off to do.”

He knows a low 40 will present Cleveland with an even tougher dilemma.

“A lot of people have opinions on the 40, and how much it translates to the game,” Barkley added. “But it’s part of the process. It’s something you have to do to get to where you want to get. So that’s something you want to dominate.”

Last year, Leonard Fournettes 4.51 time in the 40 was the best in nearly 15 years for a back weighing 240-plus pounds. Still, combine stats always come with a grain of salt.

Alvin Kamara, at 215 pounds, couldn’t match the much bigger Fournette while running 4.56. But Kamara wound up as the offensive rookie of the year.

“The GMs and scouts, those guys are looking for the numbers,” said Shaw, who has trained 145 first rounders and 10 No. 1 overall picks. “Coaches are looking for guys who are fluid coming out of their breaks.”

Long-distance jaunts mark just one component of Barkley’s repertoire. He took to heart the “tool belt” analogy that his former position coach, Charles Huff, preached. Turn on the highlight reel, and there’s a stunning variety of big plays — spin moves, stutter steps, jump cuts, acrobatic one-hand receptions and in-your-face, smashmouth football.

There’s still debate about running back value, particularly when compared to quarterbacks, who typically suffer less wear and tear. Yet quarterback prospects are still a 50-50 proposition, while a resurgence of star runners — including Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, Kamara and Fournette — have demonstrated their value holds up in a pass-heavy game.

“You see where the league is going,” Barkley said. “And the great backs ... they’re not just one-dimensional.”

Now he heads to the biggest job interview of his life, ready to showcase his own worth.

“I just want these teams to know that I’m a leader and I’m passionate,” he said. “I want to be one of the best ever.

"Obviously, I’m not looking too far in the future, but that’s what you work for. So they’re going to get a guy with a great mindset.”

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