The ideal time for Saquon Barkley to get his preferred contract extension, to leverage his talent, to hold out, would have been after the 2020 NFL season.
A resurgent third season, if he’d bounced back to the level of his impressive 2018 rookie year, probably wouldn’t have made it difficult for Barkley to sway a Giants franchise led by the GM that drafted him No. 2 overall.
But Barkley tore his right ACL in Week 2 and missed almost the entire 2020 season. He badly sprained his left ankle in Week 5 of the 2021 season and was barely a factor that year, too.
Dave Gettleman got fired. And in stepped new GM Joe Schoen with fresh eyes and a modern perspective on running back value and roster construction.
So even after an improved rushing season in 2022, Barkley didn’t have the leverage he and his representatives hoped or believed they did.
And once Schoen placed the $10.091 million franchise tag on Barkley in March, that left him with only one remaining move to get a better contract:
Don’t show up.
It was inevitable, therefore, that Barkley would not be signing the franchise tag and not be eligible to participate when the Giants’ offseason program starts Monday, as Newsday reported.
The running back joined Daniel Jones and teammates for workouts in Arizona last week. And technically there is nothing mandatory on the Giants’ offseason schedule until their mid-June minicamp on the back of the program’s start, the NFL Draft and OTAs.
But there isn’t a clear path to a resolution here considering how the negotiations have gone.
Barkley, 26, and his representatives were pushing in both November and January for a contract that paid him at the level of San Francisco 49ers market-setter Christian McCaffrey at an average of $16 million per year.
They turned down a multi-year offer that would have paid him between $12-12.5 million per year and put him in the top five or six at his position.
So Schoen said at the NFL owners meetings that he had reset negotiations with Barkley’s agent. And the GM said the team is comfortable carrying Barkley at that $10.091 salary cap hit, which sits in a three-way tie for eighth among all running backs.
“There’s no outstanding offer right now,” the GM said. “Where we are with him on the franchise tag, we’re fine with that.”
The first real pressure point is July 17.
The Giants and Barkley have until then to negotiate a multi-year extension. Otherwise, if Barkley wanted to stay, he would have to play the 2023 season under the non-exclusive tag.
If this gets ugly and the situation becomes unsalvageable, a trade is always an option. Barkley would have to sign the franchise tag first before the Giants could trade him, so that would give him a semblance of control over where he could be traded to.
Co-owner John Mara said at the NFL owners meetings that he wants Barkley to be a Giant for life. And Barkley has said that many times, too. But Mara didn’t completely rule out the possibility of a trade, even though it’s not his preference.
“I don’t want to trade him,” he said. “We’re not looking to trade him. We’re not shopping him. And I’d be very surprised if we made that decision.”
Schoen and Mara both spoke to Barkley in mid-March. The Giants co-owner said the Giants’ message to Barkley is that “we very much want you back.”
However, even Mara played a bit of hardball on what the team is willing to pay to make that happen.
“We want you to be one of the leaders of this team, want you to be one of the faces of this franchise,” Mara continued. “But there’s a limit as to how far we can go. We have to build a team around you. And we’ve gotten just about as far as we can.”
The depressed running-back market is not helping Barkley’s argument, either.
Barkley, the Cowboys’ Tony Pollard and the Raiders’ Josh Jacobs all received the franchise tag this March.
Barkley’s former Penn State understudy, Eagles standout Miles Sanders, signed a four-year $25.4 million contract with the Carolina Panthers that averages only $6.35 million per season and includes just $13 million guaranteed, per overthecap.com.
L.A. Chargers stud back Austin Ekeler received permission to seek a trade last month after feeling frustrated and disrespected by the extension offers he had on the table.
But since, Ekeler has seemed resigned to the possibility of having to play out the final, $7.75 million bargain year of the former undrafted free agent’s current deal.
In that context, Barkley therefore made the only move he had left to fight for what he believes he is worth in New York.
Where this goes from here is anyone’s guess.