2018 NFL Draft Preview: Opening the movement toolbox of Saquon Barkley

Introduction

With the 2018 NFL Draft rapidly approaching, the intrigue has been building for months as to what the nation’s top prospects could be capable of when they reach the upper echelon of our sport. Arguably, no player in this year’s class has received as much buzz as Penn State RB, Saquon Barkley, who is not only a surefire first round top 10 draft pick but could potentially hear his name announced as the very first one come April 26th (this coming just a few years after it was wondered if RB’s were ever going to be worthy of even being a First Round selection again).

Barkley combine 2.JPG

Barkley’s unique skill-set and raw athleticism even have him being talked about in the same breath as the likes of other immediate, but rare, game-breakers at the position over the last few decades, such as Adrian Peterson and Barry Sanders. Those who routinely read my work here know I am not one big on comparisons and instead prefer to allow each player to be celebrated for their authenticity, but I would be amiss, with a running back (my very favorite to analyze) being put in this high of esteem leading up to his entry into the NFL, if I didn’t throw my hat in the ring and offer up an analysis from a Movement Specialist’s perspective on what very well could be the most impactful player in the entire 2018 NFL Draft class.

An abundant toolbox with a dexterous skill-set

By now, everyone has seen the video reel of highlights from Saquon Barkley; the jukes & breakaways on college football Saturdays, the feats of physical prowess at Penn State, and the jaw-dropping NFL Combine performance in Indy back in February…you name it, and Barkley seems to be fully adept at impressing during it. But when we really dive into this a little further, as we will today, we see something shining much brighter than the sheer explosiveness and game-breaking speed capabilities; a highly evolved movement toolbox and an individual seemingly attuned to adapting the solutions in it (the toolbox) under various conditions & circumstances (the very essence of movement dexterity). In other words, we see a Movement Specialist’s dream.

Barkley cut 3

Often times when we see a player who has excelled at the NCAA level, and we peel back the layers to determine why & how he does what he does, we find guys who excel because of an overreliance on one (or maybe two) physical qualities or movement traits which allow him to dominate his opponents who sometimes exist a notch or two below the average college player. Simply put though, this reliance isn’t very conducive for transference to success at the NFL level for a few reasons: 1). Problems at the NFL level intensify very, very quickly versus those faced at the college level (i.e. holes that were there before no longer exist, opponent’s have vastly different physical traits & movement capabilities, etc). 2). The landscape of problems at the NFL level is spread across a wide problem bandwidth (fancy way of saying they are highly variable). 3). Even when you do have immediate success, your opponents (whether it’s the other players or it’s the coaches you face) are very quick to figure out how to neutralize your strength(s).

Barkley accel.jpg

So, in contrast to this individual who has developed and made use of a more restricted movement toolbox (even if it consists of highly stabilized movement solutions) is that mover who possesses, as we have highlighted countless times before here on the blog with guys the likes of Antonio Brown, is an individual who’s movement skill is characterized not only by the aforementioned qualities of attunement and adaptation but also abundance (aka degeneracy) in their movement strategies and a supreme understanding (whether it’s explicit or more implicit, conscious or more subconscious) regarding their personal affordances for action. Said another way, the masterful mover has a more functional fit between the range of problems he is set to face and the unique solutions that he is able to offer in adapting to solve those problems. And in this way, even though this upcoming statement is purely subjective, Saquon Barkley is on a short-list of the most masterful movers I’ve analyzed as they embark on entering the league.

What makes me so confident in saying this? Well, let’s dive into just a few Barkley highlights to put his movement toolbox on full display. As you will see…his affordances for actions are just a tad different than the rest of us…

https://youtu.be/E0VALn4r8mg

Just a few of the many things that caught my eye as I watched this highlight reel.

  1. Slicing through the USC defense (0:07)

In tight space (near the line of scrimmage) or with a defender trying to break his bubble (like what happens with the DB early in the play), he is equally adept at coming up with lateral transitional movement actions which set him up in a more advantageous position to accelerate from. From there, even with feeling a guy in pursuit, he is still able to solve a problem at the next level of the defense (see the 25 yard line at 0:10). Then, with a guy at further distance away, while both he and the defender are moving at higher speeds (Barkley on the 35 and the defender running down the 40 to close the gap) he is able to literally just throw the brakes on and crossover to cut back (don’t try that cut at home!). Then he just purely runs away from people.

Barkley usc cut.jpg

  1. Movement in a crowded phone booth (0:38)

This place contains a problem that is very NFL-like in its environmental & task constraints especially with the time and space that is afforded. Once he catches the screen and turns around (0:40 at the 25 yard line), his ability to perceive rapidly while coupling to make a quick, accurate decision is uncanny. He then connects that with a coiled side-stepping action to avoid a big hit by a guy who is just a yard and a half away. Then, with a guy draped on his legs from behind and a guy approaching in front of him, he comes up with a creative, novel solution to spin out and away from the tackling attempts of both guys.

  1. Agility control at high speeds (1:04)

Here, Barkley first makes a more parallel-stance crossover speed cut at moderate velocities (at the 47 yard line at 1:06) followed by a quick burst to cover the next 13 yards in a blink which is topped by a unilateral crossover cut (off of the other leg than before, mind you)) at high speeds (at the other 45 yard line at 1:08) before out-running the Temple defense.

  1. Putting guys on a string and playing with them (1:49)

Even when a guy appears to have him dead to rights (#97 at the 27 yard line at 1:50) Barkley knows that time and space is his only thing that he has to worry about manipulating in any 1 versus 1 situation; thus, he easily breezes past him. Then, as he approaches the defender already running full-go to Barkley’s left, the dynamic RB gives him the look that he is going to continue his running path hard in the direction he is already headed. Somewhere along the way, Barkley is able to visually scan and understands there’s tremendous green grass to work with to his right so when the defenders gets close enough and under a compromised body position to execute anything of any use, Barkley sits down on his right leg in a lunge deceleration position and, without skipping a beat, crosses his left leg over the top of it en route to the end zone.

  1. Why go fast all the time when you can deceive through tempo change? (2:02)

Most of the time, fast guys always keep the pedal to the floor. However, a more effective way to move (and often times more efficient, as well) is to change tempos, rhythms, and sprinting cadences on the defender to deceive them and keep them guessing as to not only where you are going but also when you are going to get there. On this play, Barkley does just that…thing is, he literally did this same thing later on in the game to the same guy just on the other end of the field.

  1. Shadows are perceptual information too (2:53)

Maybe my very favorite Saquon play of all time, Barkley shows that all information is powerful. In fact, even when it is unlikely information it can still give you something of great substance. What do I mean? Well, pay close attention to how Barkley couples his movement actions to the perception of the defender’s shadow that he can see in order to feel/understand where the defender’s pursuit is in reference to his own path (at the 25 yard line at 2:57). Truly remarkable!

Barkley shadow.jpg

  1. If this football thing doesn’t work-out, there’s always hurdling (4:43)

Though I am not always (okay, usually) a fan of offensive skill players leaving their feet in hurdling type actions with players going low because of how many bad things can happen while a player is in the air, Saquon routinely performs these types of hurdling actions and like he does on this play (at 4:46), he takes contact somewhere during the trajectory and utilizes his tremendous balance and kinesthetic sense to offer up a useful solution when he gets back to the ground.

Barkley Iowa hurdle 2.jpg

  1. From one movement problem to the next (5:03)

I’ve said before and I will say again, sport represents nothing but a problem solving activity where movements are used to produce the necessary solutions (credit to Siff & Verkhoshansky on the quote)…and when you reach the upper levels of sport, no two problems are ever the same and often the problems the needed to be solved take place in close succession to one another. This is the case on this play here where after having to make a leaping one handed grab, Barkley comes down, gets his eyes up, loads his legs quickly, springs a foot back into plyo stepping action, and gets on his horse to get by a guy who should’ve ‘easily’ brought him down for a minimal gain. He then follows this exceptional act up (at 5:07 at the 47 yard line) by once again showing us his use of a high-speed crossover cut.

  1. What’s the definition of dexterity again? (7:15)

Dexterity = the ability to solve any movement problem under any condition and in any situation…what Saquon does from the 30 yard line (7:17) to 38 yard line is simply incredible; the lunge deceleration stop is impressive enough then when you add into it the fact that it’s being executed while tip-toeing the sideline AND with one of the best defenders in the Big Ten (#43 for Iowa) bearing down on him, well…you get the picture.

Barkley Iowa cut 3

  1. As a young-in against a whole bunch of future NFL players (7:27)

As we can see here, against a stacked then #1 in the country Ohio State group, Barkley is out there reaching into his toolbox a few years before the toolbox was close being as evolved as it is now. He starts the whole thing out by performing an outside foot modified lunge-power cut versus Joey Bosa to start the play behind the line of scrimmage and leaving him empty handed. He follows this up getting a little too comfortable getting in the air even back then!

As you can see from the highlights above, you now know why I started this blog post by raving about the abundant diversity in Saquon’s arsenal. Long story short: Barkley has the ability to drop his hips to the ground and coil powerful legs to the ground to efficiently spring himself in and out of cuts effortlessly no matter where his feet get in his stance and what movement patterns can before the cut (as well as what velocity he was previous moving at and how much space he has to operate with). Once he does execute his cut, it’s not his speed that really shines through to hit the big play; instead, it’s his short distance acceleration burst which, even at his size and stature, he is able to pick em up and put em down in a hurry and make it through lanes that often times look un-passable.

Barkley usc accel.jpg

Every rose has its thorns

Yes; Saquon Barkley is almost without equal when it comes to his fellow college players and the movement characteristics they exhibit as they embark on a life in the NFL. However, that doesn’t mean that he is without flaws as no player ever is; every rose has its thorns and every system has its glitches. Many NFL Draft analysts, who are so quick to draw attention to any possible flaws in an attempt to save face should their sure-fire prospects falter later on, will point out that Barkley sometimes lacks overall productivity (never-mind that a star RB at the college level draws a whole lot of attention from opposing teams’ coordinators), frequently loses yards on runs or doesn’t pick up the more apparent, more consistent yardage because he is so busy looking for the homerun run (meaning, he doesn’t always ‘take what’s there’). However, to me, these aren’t the concerning gaps in the movement skill-set (or at least the cause to those potential effects). Instead, because he’s so comfortable reaching into the toolbox to pull out a wide variety of moves (both the strategies and attached movement patterns), he is a little quick to move for the sake of it when it’s not actually the “correct” move (or a needed move) at the right time.

Some will say that this weakness or gap in his movement skill-set actually shows less dexterity (the ability to find the right solution under any situation & context) and I would agree as I often say that we can learn a lot about a mover’s perception and intention at times when it fails (and let’s not forget that movement skill is about perception coupled with intention which is coupled with action). And, in this way, I believe Saquon’s perceptual and cognitive skill can improve (and will need to improve to be his best) at the NFL level…in fact, at that level, due to the much more complex and intense problems that a RB will face on Sundays, one cannot afford to just be executing movement for the sake of it or when they (the movement actions) are not needed. This is a quick way to run out of time and space, or at the bare minimum, is much less efficient way to move.

Overall, to be his most productive in the NFL, he will need to be more sensitive to subtle changes in what problems offer and to go along with that, increase the accuracy in the decisions he makes for the actions he executes. Fortunately, it goes without saying that Barkley and his skill are likely highly plastic and moldable. That being said then, once he begins to accumulate additional repetitions within more representative tasks and across the range of problems that the NFL environment offers, his perceptual “antennae” will become more sensitive to what the problems offer him and he will learn how his decisions lead to success as well as how to best carry out his movement actions in response to them. When this occurs, the functionality of his entire movement toolbox will take another needed progressive step forward.

Conclusion

Obviously, talent identification in the NFL is a difficult endeavor. Thus, Saquon Barkley may or may not be destined for both short-term and long-term NFL success as it’s still too early and complex to tell. Either way though, one thing remains clear to me: Saquon Barkley has a rare movement maturity and already established skill/expertise about him. That said, just because a player was able to see success at the college level on Saturdays doesn’t necessarily mean that he will be able to come up with similar solutions at the professional level of Sundays. However, Barkley is one mover who I believe, like most NFL Draft pundits have predicted, will see a similar transfer in skill from one level and jumping to the next.

 

 

 

 

Barkley accel.jpg

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