Blue White Illustrated

September 2023

Penn State Sports Magazine

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Page 33 of 67

3 4 S E P T E M B E R 2 0 2 3 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M O P I N I O N THOMAS FRANK CARR TFRANK.CARR@ON3.COM F ormer Penn State running back Saquon Barkley has been making headlines this offseason due to an unfortunately public battle with the New York Giants about his contract situation. The superstar runner signed a one-year, $10.1 million adjusted fran- chise tag. But to Penn State and Giants fans, this should be a no-brainer. Despite a bad knee injury in 2021, Barkley came back last year and literally carried the Giants to a postseason berth with 352 combined touches and 1,650 total yards from scrimmage. So, why is it so hard for Barkley and most NFL runners to get a new deal done? The answer to that question helps explain why current sophomore Nick Singleton is more valuable to Penn State than Barkley is to the Giants. Let's start with the obvious difference between the two levels of competition. The NFL has a salary cap, while college football has no restrictions on talent acquisition. The only limiting factor at this point is NIL support and recruit- ing prowess. A college coaching staff, therefore, doesn't have to make hard decisions about which positions to pri- oritize in the same way as the NFL. When pro teams make monetary de- cisions, running backs head to the back of the line, thanks partly to analytics. Ted Nguyen of The Athletic recently wrote an excellent summary of how we've gotten to this point. To sum- marize his key takeaways, rule changes in the NFL allowed for passing the ball to be a more efficient means of gaining yardage. This change led to a de-em- phasis on the running game. There's also a case to be made that running backs aren't as responsible for their production as the scheme and the offensive line. You can dislike analytics, but the economy of the NFL has clearly adopted these findings. The number of runners making over $10 million annually has dwindled in recent years. With the sal- ary cap presenting a real roadblock for player compensation, the league has found that the winning formula comes down to passing and stopping the pass. You can look at the Giants as a per- fect test case. The team took a gamble this offseason and signed quarterback Daniel Jones to a four-year, $160 mil- lion deal with $81 million guaranteed at signing. While it's not a full endorse- ment of Jones as the team's franchise quarterback — the pact has an out after two years — it is a sign that the team is willing to gamble at quarterback rather than take the safe bet on Barkley at run- ning back. In some ways, the two games are en- tirely different. The width of the hashes creates fundamental shifts in what an offense can do to attack the defense when they're on the hashes. The length of the field creates more space to work with and more variety of schemes. The NFL is more monolithic in what can work based on these factors. But college football ulti- mately comes down to tal- ent level. As good an athlete as Barkley is, the difference between him and the average NFL defender isn't as extreme as you'd think. Really, the dif- ference between Barkley and a quality NFL running back pro- duces diminishing returns on the pay scale. But in college, Singleton's speed and skill are game- changers. While certain personnel changed on the offensive line from 2021 to 2022, Singleton and classmate Kaytron Allen produced yardage at a rate that elevated the offense. Singleton eclipsed Penn State's explosive yard- age from 2021 by himself. Players who will never see a blade of grass on an NFL field make up the majority of college football defenders. When you combine speed and space, you create game- changing plays. It's an interesting juxtaposition be- tween the perception of Barkley and Singleton in the football world. Single- ton is seen as Penn State's centerpiece for an upcoming campaign that has been accompanied by hopes of a post- season playoff berth. Meanwhile, Bark- ley might be an added expense that isn't worth the Giants' cap space. It's all the more reason for running backs to push for NIL early in their careers. The money will never be the same as NFL money, but the window for a running back's prime starts in college. ■ Sophomore running back Nicholas Singleton's speed and skill are game- changing elements at the college level, whereas today's NFL places a higher premium on passing and stopping the pass. PHOTO BY DANIEL ALTHOUSE Running Backs' Value Proposition Peaks In College Upon Further Review

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