Career Recap: Many thought that head coach James Franklin wasn't a good fit for Penn State when he was hired to be the replacement for Bill O'Brien, who had left for the Houston Texans. Franklin went through some issues with quarterback Christian Hackenberg for two years that reinforced those doubts, but the trend of Franklin's job and tenure at Penn State may have been saved by Barkley.
Barkley put together a superb sophomore season, averaging 5.5 yards per carry on the year for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also made 28 catches for 402 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver. Barkley, quarterback Trace McSorley and wide receiver Chris Godwin led an effective offense that took the Nittany Lions to the Rose Bowl in a breakout year for Franklin's tenure at Penn State.
Barkley was also impressive as a freshman in 2015 when he averaged 5.9 yards per carry for 1,076 yards with seven touchdowns. He also caught 20 passes for 161 yards and a score that season.
2017 Season Outlook: Barkley will see a good slate of competition as a junior. He will see some early defensive talent with Pittsburgh and Iowa in the first four weeks of the season. The most difficult stretch for Barkley comes in late October and early November when he sees Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State over three weeks. The junior does have a number of weaker opponents scattered throughout the schedule that he should dominate.
Skill-Set Summary: After a few years without a first-round running back, the position has made a comeback in recent years with likes of Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey all being top-20 picks in their draft classes. While the running back position is devalued in the present passing-driven NFL, running backs still have a big impact on wins and losses for their teams. Barkley should keep the recent top-20 streak alive as he is that kind of talent, provide the junior can stay healthy during 2017.
There is a lot to like about Barkley as a runner. He has a superb skill set with quick feet and a burst to rip off chunk runs on any carry. Barkley has good vision with quick feet and cutting ability to dart through small seems for positive yardage. With his height and build, he has natural pad level, body leans, and runs behind his pads. That makes him very tough for defenders to get a hold of.
Barkley also is a shifty runner as he has moves in the open field to shake defenders. Routinely, you see Barkley juke safeties at the second level to dodge the tackle and dart downfield for more yards. Barkley's athletic ability and lower body explosion are obviously evident with how he hurdles bigger defenders regularly. In the NFL, he may not want to go vertical as much to decrease his injury risk, but his special skill is undeniable.
Barkley has a good burst and hits the hole in an instant. He has a fast first-step with explosion to accelerate to the second level downfield. With his speed, Barkley is a threat to rip off a chunk run on any carry when he gets a crease with just a little bit of space. Barkley does get caught from behind by some as he is a quick, explosive runner, but he is not a fast Chris Johnson-type runner.
In the passing-driven NFL, Barkley fits as a receiving back as he has soft hands and runs quality routes. He could be a nice check-down receiver as he is excellent in space and does well on screens as well. Barkley will need development in his blocking as all college backs have a lot to learn for pass protection with value of NFL quarterbacks and going against professional defenses with exotic blitz schemes.
2018 NFL Draft Expectations: If Barkley stays healthy, doesn't have any off-the-field concerns and is consistent with his 2016 play, he should be a top-20 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.