By Ricky Eisenbart, PSO Asst. Director of Football Operations
Aug 06, 2019

Being two of the NFL’s most storied franchises — not to mention one of the sport’s most intense, deep-rooted rivalries — the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, have both fielded their fair share of top-tier talent over the years, exhibited by their nine combined Lombardi Trophies and fifty-nine total Hall of Famers. Despite the league’s shift towards pass-heavy offensive schemes, the Cowboys and Giants have instead invested incredibly valuable draft capital into two running back phenoms: Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley.

The Cowboys and Giants have seen incredible success in the past with legendary running backs like Emmitt Smith, Tiki Barber, and Tony Dorsett, but Elliott and Barkley possess unlimited potential that is impossible to overstate. With two incredibly talented superstars of their caliber facing off twice a year, the inevitable question must be addressed: who is better? Let’s Debate. 

Both
  • RBs drafted in top-10 since 2012: Saquon Barkley (2nd, 2018), Ezekiel Elliott (4th, 2016), Leonard Fournette (4th, 2017), Christian McCafferey (8th, 2017), Todd Gurley (10th, 2015)
  • Top rushing (yards) seasons since 2016: Zeke (2016), Zeke (2018), Kareem Hunt (2017), Jordan Howard (2016), Saquon (2018)
 
Ezekiel Elliott
  • Among rookie running backs since 2000, Elliott’s 2016 campaign ranks first in yards, touchdowns, and yards per game with only the third-most attempts
  • Ranks 4th in yards per game (101.2) through a player’s first 3 seasons (since 1970)
  • Accounted for nearly 40% of Dallas’ offensive production in 2018
 
Saquon Barkley
  • Highest-drafted RB since Reggie Bush in 2006 (both selected 2nd overall; No RB selected No.1 since ’95)
  • Combine performance ranks in the 96th percentile
  • Zero fumbles on 352 total offensive touches in 2018
  • 3rd rookie to ever surpass 2,000 scrimmage yards (Eric Dickerson, Edgerrin James)
  • Most receptions by a rookie RB in NFL history

In the play above, Saquon Barkley reached a peak speed of 21.9 MPH that ranked 7th among all ball carriers in 2017 & 2018 combined. Although Elliott led the NFL in runs of 15 yards or more (25), 16 of Saquon’s 20 runs of the sort (ranked 3rd) turned into 20 or more yards. Barkley’s 16 led the NFL (by a wide margin) while Elliott was tied for 2nd with 11.

Furthermore, Barkley also led the NFL in 40+ yard runs with 7, more than double every other back except Nick Chubb (Zeke had only 1). Barkley was getting to the next level consistently despite a poor Offensive Line thanks to his exceptional burst from the Line of Scrimmage. Adjust these measures to a per-carry basis to account for their respective workloads, and Barkley runs away with it (no pun intended). .

20+ yard runs per attempt

  • Barkley: .061
  • Elliott: .036
 

EDGE: Saquon Barkley


Barkley and Elliott ranked first (931) and third (718), respectively, in yards after contact in 2018. While many people might view Barkley as the more powerful runner, looking further into the difference of their running styles tells the real story. Barkley excels in evading defenders and making tacklers miss (examined more below), but Elliott is a true power back with elite athleticism. He is a violent downhill runner with a relentless motor who seeks contact and consistently turns routine three-yard runs into seven or eight yards by breaking arm tackles or running straight through a defender.

If Dallas needs to bleed out the clock, convert a crucial third-and-short, or punch the ball into the end zone in a goal-to-go situation, everyone knows Elliott is getting the ball. Even the defenders. Yet, he still cannot be stopped. No matter the situation, Elliott can always be relied upon to get the job done, demonstrated by his league-leading 73 first-down runs.

EDGE: Ezekiel Elliott


When it comes to forcing missed tackles, both running backs ranked in the top-ten this past season. Elliott’s 37 forced missed tackles (specifically on rushing attempts) ranked ninth in 2018 and Barkley ranked eighth with 40. On a per-carry basis, however, the numbers skew heavily in Barkley’s favor, even without factoring in his league-leading 31 missed tackles on receptions.

Saquon’s .15 missed tackles per attempt ranked 8th in 2018, while Zeke ranked just 37th with .12 missed tackles per attempt. Elliott is a special runner in his own right, but Barkley has an uncanny ability to slip past defenders and weave through traffic at a level we have rarely seen since Barry Sanders. That’s extremely high praise for a 22-year-old running back with one single season under his belt, but he is that special of a runner. The numbers show Barkley has more elusiveness and the film proves it. 

EDGE: Saquon Barkley


In today’s spread-heavy NFL, having a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield is almost essential to winning professional football games. Barkley immediately established himself as a premier threat, setting a rookie running back record for receptions (91). While Elliott’s receiving numbers improved exponentially in 2018, Barkley outperformed him in every receiving measure except two, which happen to be very important: drops (Elliott: 3, Barkley: 7) and catch rate (Elliott: 81%, Barkley: 75%).

Obviously, Saquon is lethal after the catch, but Zeke’s reliable hands make for a consistent check-down target, the running back’s primary role as a receiver in most offensive schemes. Zeke’s consistency makes it a close debate, but Saquon’s ceiling catching passes with his ability after the catch gives him the slight edge.

 

– Yards After Catch

  • Elliott: 576 (8th)
  • Barkley: 768 (3rd)
 

EDGE: Saquon Barkley


Blocking might be the least glamorous, least discussed aspect of a running back’s game, but it is also one of the most undervalued. Even when they don’t have a ball in their hands, running backs can be true difference-makers if they’re able to provide their quarterback with an extra second or two to get a throw off. Considering their respective offensive lines, this may be the case more so with Barkley than Elliott, but it is still very important nonetheless.

Through his three-year career, Elliott has shown a willingness to stick his nose in and throw a crucial block, whether it be in pass protection, leading on a screen pass, or even a designed quarterback running play. In his final season at Ohio State, Elliott allowed just one single pressure on 162 pass-blocking snaps and has only improved since joining the Cowboys. Barkley has proven to be a solid pass-blocker himself, but Elliott clearly takes pride in even the most overlooked aspects of his game and simply wants to do what he can to help his team win.

EDGE: Ezekiel Elliott

Being the two highest-drafted running backs since 2012, expectations will always be sky-high for Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley. Despite their brief careers, they have already more than lived up to their draft status and seem to be well on their way towards legendary careers. Both Elliott and Barkley put up comparable statistics and essentially serve the same workhorse role for their respective teams, but many factors outside of pure numbers must be considered.

Not only is Barkley younger and faster, but he’s doing the same amount of damage with a lesser supporting cast. Sure, Dallas’ offensive line wasn’t at full strength for most of last season, but they were still significantly better than New York’s O-Line. Zeke may be the the engine that powers the Cowboys’ offense, but Saquon is the sole reason the Giants’ offense had a heartbeat in 2018, especially when Odell Beckham Jr. was injured for four games. Saquon might only be scratching the surface of his potential, and without Beckham taking the majority of Eli Manning’s targets this season, expect Saquon’s entire workload, rushing and receiving, to expand in his second season.

 

– Offensive Line Run Blocking Rankings

  • Cowboys: 8th
  • Giants: 29th
 

OVERALL EDGE: Saquon Barkley

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