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Rest vs. Rust 2021: What can fantasy football players expect from Saquon Barkley?

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For years, fantasy managers have debated the merits of a player who’s had time to heal a particular injury versus the overall deterioration that could occur during the rehab process. Whether it’s a veteran stud showing signs of decline or a young turk striving to bounce back from an upended season, FF enthusiasts are always weighing the pros and cons of time spent away from the field.

The Covid-related question marks surrounding 2020 highlighted this concern and inspired me to — with the help of an esteemed orthopedic surgeon — launch Rest vs Rust for 2021. A year later, pangs of the pandemic continue to affect how fans approach the virtual game.

So, we’re running it back … with a new crop of star players looking to regain dominance.

This is Rest vs Rust 2.0.

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

Underdogs are easy to root for. We feel their successes viscerally. The fall of a Goliath (be it real or intangible) makes for one hell of a serotonin boost.

But what about run-of-the-mill titans? The ones that don’t need tumbling. Athletic marvels who have never not been straight-up all-stars?

How do we feel about players — the ones whose on-the-field theatrics remain consistently excellent, regularly leaving us slack-jawed and applauding in appreciation — when they lose their greatness … but maybe remain just really good?

Enter Saquon Barkley.

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26)
Saquon Barkley was supposed to be the next great francise-changing running back. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

A three-sport athlete who hails from athletic stock, Barkley has been “the man” before he even was one. With his name scribbled all over high school and college record books, the expectations for Barkley’s professional career have been of the “generational talent” variety. That’s what happens when a storied franchise selects a running back — the positional merits of which often become the subject of value-based debates — second overall for the first time in 12 years (since New Orleans took Reggie Bush in 2006).

Barkley didn’t blink, though. Not with that vision.

In 2018, his skill — and subsequent production — were as advertised. On the field for a full 16 game slate and touching the ball 22 times per outing, the Penn State standout collected 2,028 all-purpose yards and 15 scores. He ended his rookie effort as fantasy football’s RB2 overall.

The following two seasons, however, lower-body injuries slowed what was expected to be the engine of the New York Giants' offense. Now, at age 24, Barkley is coming off the most significant physical malady of his athletic career.

The return from which he’s been curiously noncommittal about.

Understanding Saquon Barkley’s injury

To better understand the extent of Barkley’s injuries and conceptualize the likelihood of a snapback, I (again) enlisted the help of Dr. Alex Weber, an orthopedic surgeon and team physician for the USC Trojans.

According to Dr. Weber, the knee injury sustained by Barkley in Week 2 of last year affected three major components: his ACL, MCL, and meniscus. To most thoroughly address this specific “constellation” of damage, Barkley was advised to wait approximately 40 days before going under the knife. This afforded the running back time to “prehab” before surgically addressing the sundry tears and issues within the joint.

“Most MCL tears can heal when given enough time. So when someone presents with an ACL/MCL injury we typically suggest they rehab the area prior to surgery. We want them to work on regaining their range of motion and improving their leg strength, while also allowing the MCL to heal. That way when we do go to surgery, rather than having to repair or reconstruct both ligaments, we can just focus on the ACL.”

As it pertains to Barkley, Weber explains “He healed his MCL. He had a reconstruction of his ACL. And he had — also important to note — a repair of his meniscus. The reason that’s important is because it affects the long-term health of his knee.”

Weber went on to say, “The meniscus is like a shock absorber in the knee. So when it’s removed — rather than repaired — the chances of developing arthritis in the area become much higher. But the 50-year-old version of Saquon Barkley will be better off because his surgeon [the renowned and highly respected Dr. Neal ElAttrache] decided to suture together the tear, instead of just trimming it out.”

Ok, but what about the 24-year-old version of Saquon Barkley? Because this hype video sure has #fantasytwitter biting on a bounce back.

From a medical standpoint, there are several studies on “return to play,” specifically citing NFL athletes post-ACL reconstruction. Largely, the data shows that somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of all players — regardless of their position — return to their “prior level of performance.”

EIGHTY percent?!? That basically guarantees 2,000 total yards and 20 TDs for SaQuads!

I’m moon-shooting with that projection but, per Dr. Weber, there are plenty of factors working in Barkley’s favor. The doctor points out that, “Positive predictors of return to play include an age less than 25-years-old and an early round draft investment. Additionally, offensive players have a greater — close to 90 percent — return to prior level of participation (RTPP) over defensive players [which hovers near 75 percent].”

Despite hearing all of this fantastic news, however, something kept gnawing at me. If things are this overwhelmingly good ... then why is the organization staying pointedly mum about Barkley’s return if not to manage fans’ expectations?

I point-blank asked Dr. Weber if Barkley’s days of touching the ball 20 times per game are over.

He paused before thoughtfully answering, “There’s no denying that the durability of NFL athletes after a significant knee injury is diminished. And I do believe Barkley is at high risk for having another injury. But I think that — given his elite level of athleticism — if he’s eased back into the offense and avoids an early season setback, then he could have years of being the No. 1 running back.”

That’s a heck of an “if,” Doc.

Saquon Barkley's seasonal outlook for 2021

Over the first month of 2021, the Giants will face three of the fiercest (and most highly-ranked) d-lines in the league: Denver, Washington, and New Orleans. Last year, the Football Team and the Saints allowed the fourth- and fifth-fewest fantasy points to opposing RBs, respectively. The Broncos — who kick off their season at MetLife Stadium — struggled in 2020, but have a collection of difference-makers returning from injury.

Whether it’s the health of Denver’s defense or the presumed ineptitude of New York’s offense, Vegas is giving a slight advantage to the Broncos (-110) in the opener. BetMGM also has the over/under listed at 42.5, which happens to be the lowest point total of the entire Week 1 slate, and additionally implies a negative game script for Barkley’s 2021 premier.

The load doesn’t lighten down the stretch, either.

Per PFF, Barkley has the toughest schedule of any starting RB in the league. That might be part of the reason his odds to win Comeback Player of the Year are currently sitting at +500. Line movement throughout the summer is, of course, expected, but if Vegas is hedging ... maybe fantasy managers should too?

If ADP is any indicator, they’re not.

Barkley is presently coming off the board at the five spot, ahead of Jonathan Taylor and Ezekiel Elliott. The position undeniably dries up quickly, but top-five selection assumes a gaudy workload.

That’s not happening in 2021.

The G-Men added a bevy of bodies to the offense, the collection of which will affect Barkley’s touch total. He’s not drawing five to six looks per outing this year. Not with four new receivers (including a splashy free-agent acquisition worth $40 million guaranteed and a first-round draft pick) joining the squad.

And, at least at the top of the year, he’s not carrying the ball an average of 16 times a game, either.

Big Blue’s investment in Barkley is too steep to risk him getting hurt in the fall. As Dr. Weber mentioned, a blow like that could capsize the season and, potentially, the length of Barkley’s career. That’s a large part of the reason New York added so much insurance to the backfield.

The talents of Devontae Booker, Corey Clement, Ryquell Armstrong, and Gary Brightwell added together don’t equal one Saquon Barkley ... but they don’t have to. What they’re there to do is to keep him fresh and — if the unthinkable happens — pitch in as a collective (even if it means being called up from the practice squad).

For the entirety of his young career, Barkley has been the exception. There’s a chance, though, that he could now be the rule. However, that regression is statistically unlikely to occur if he’s eased into action.

As savvy fantasy enthusiasts, we have to adjust our expectations accordingly. We have to acknowledge and understand that selecting him in August means not seeing him BOOM until October.

If all goes well, of course.

That leap — however big or small it is for each of us — is why I can’t rank Barkley inside my top five. It’s why he’s firmly fixed in my second tier of options at the position. It’s, sadly, why I probably won’t have him on any of my teams.

But I’ll be rooting for him to prove me wrong.

Are you all-in on Saquon’s bounce back this fall? Let Liz know on social @LizLoza_FF

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