Giants ‘Big-Time Weapon’ Expected to Help Saquon Barkley ‘Right Now’

Saquon Barkley

Getty A New York Giants' draft sleeper "can help" Saquon Barkley be even better in 2023.

Saquon Barkley’s future still isn’t entirely secure, but the Pro Bow running back could enjoy his best season yet with the New York Giants, thanks to a “big-time weapon” from the 2023 NFL draft.

Eric Gray didn’t come off the board until the fifth round, but the 172nd player taken is expected by Nick Baumgardner of The Athletic to “help Barkley right now” in a duo that “could be a lot of fun.”

Barkley doesn’t necessarily need the help, but having a surprise package draw attention away from their lead workhorse can only help keep the Giants’ best player fresh. Helping Barkley stay healthy for a second-straight season will be crucial for his chances of at least repeating the career year he enjoyed in 2022.

Maybe that won’t happen if the Giants become more expansive through the air after surrounding quarterback Daniel Jones with new pass-catchers this offseason, but a Gray and Barkley double act is one more way for Big Blue to add variety to how they attack defenses.

Rookie Gem Tipped to Cause Mismatches from Backfield

Baumgardner believes “the Giants can put both backs on the field together and create matchup problems all over the place.” It’s a tantalizing prospect, particularly with two offensive minds as creative as head coach Brian Daboll and coordinator Mike Kafka designing the plays.

Daboll and Kafka dabbled with ways to pair Barkley with backup Matt Breida at times last season. A good example came against the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild-Card Playoffs, when Breida went in motion on a jet sweep to convert 3rd-and-1, while Vikes’ inside linebackers were frozen by Barkley’s presence behind Jones.

It was creative use of personnel, and the Giants can find more ways to include multiple running backs in certain formations. One way would involve putting Barkley and another runner in the same backfield then moving one out, either by flexing a back into the slot or splitting out wide to act as another viable receiver for Jones.

The ploy would take advantage of Barkley’s skills as a receiver, something endorsed when he tied for the team lead with 57 receptions last season. Breida is also adept catching passes out of the backfield and has 103 career grabs to his credit.

While Breida is a useful veteran the Giants wisely brought back in free agency, Gray can be a more dynamic change of pace for Barkley.

Late-Round Sleeper Generating a Ton of Buzz

This is far from the first time Gray has been touted as a potential steal from this year’s draft class. The Giants ranked him highly ahead of Round 5, while the 23-year-old has already been tipped to help his new team produce something special on offense.

There are good reasons to believe Gray can live up to the billing. Reasons like Gray’s 5.6-yards per carry average during two years at Tennessee and as many with Oklahoma.

Gray has legitimate shiftiness and a low centre of gravity, two things that make the 5-foot-9, 206-pounder tough to find and tackle in tight spaces. This run, highlighted by Nick Falato of SB Nation’s Big Blue View, showcases the best qualities of Gray’s game on the ground.

Where Gray’s game gets particularly interesting is in his work as a receiver. He made 99 catches at the collegiate level, often showing the versatility to be moved around and line up as a receiver.

This touchdown grab against Oregon in 2021 is a fine example, after Gray split out wide then motioned back to hide at the base of a bunch set.

It won’t be difficult for Daboll to replicate similar designs and make Gray a factor in passing situations. The rookie was praised by draft analyst Lance Zierlein for being “a reliable threat out of the backfield with soft hands and a willingness to block,” all qualities tailor-made for third-down work.

Using Gray for third downs and some red-zone packages would ease the burden on Barkley, who carried the ball 295 times, the fourth-most in the league, last season. He ran the ball 175 times more than the next most-active ball-carrier, Jones.

Daboll would be wise to reduce the Giants’ dependancy on Barkley this year. It could happen naturally after Jones got a four-year, $160 million contract, while Barkley was was given the franchise tag.

Jones will have to air the ball out more often to justify the new deal. He he has new targets, notably wide receivers Parris Campbell and Jalin Hyatt, along with Pro-Bowl tight end Darren Waller, who can help make it happen.

Yet, the Giants will still need to stay strong on the ground to win, so the more Daboll and his staff get Gray and Barkley involved, the better. It will require keeping Barkley fresh, something he hasn’t always been after knee and ankle injuries cost him 21 games in three years before last season.

If Gray can give Barkley a breather, while also providing No 26 with some genuine competition for RB1, it might even convince the veteran to accept the next contract offer from the Giants.

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