KRAVITZ: Forget history: If Barkley is at the top of the Colts’ draft board, grab him and celebrate

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (26) leaps over Washington defensive back Myles Bryant (5) during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game. (AP photo)
Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Saquon Barkley is a unicorn.

That’s the first thing you need to understand while you’re making the case that running backs should never, EVER, be taken high in the first round of the NFL Draft, much less with the third pick, which the Indianapolis Colts currently hold.

That’s the thing you need to remember when you’re noting that of the final four teams left in this year’s NFL playoffs, only one team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, had a running back who was chosen in the first round (Leonard Fournette).

That’s something to keep in mind when you note that the NFL is now a pass-first league, that in recent years, a productive running game has not generally converted into winning at the highest level, although it obviously helps.

With this unicorn, you take history and analytics and all the rest and throw them into the nearest garbage can.

Because Barkley, the Penn State back who can run, catch passes and block for the quarterback, is a unicorn... a freak... an alien.

Gil Brandt, who has forgotten more about professional football than most of us will ever know in our lifetimes, recently tweeted the follow: “(Saquon) Barkley might be the best running back to come out of college since Barry Sanders.’’

Hue Jackson, the Cleveland Browns’ head coach, called Barkley the best running back prospect he’s seen in 20 years.

Earlier this week, NFL Network Draft Analyst Mike Mayock favorably compared Barkley to Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Fournette. That’s pretty solid company.

I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it again: If Barkley and edge pass rusher Bradley Chubb are equal talents in the eyes of the Colts, go with Chubb and find a running back later in what’s expected to be a deep draft for backs. But if Barkley is at the very top of the Colts’ board, and Chubb is a step or two below Barkley in the eyes of the Colts’ braintrust, take Barkley and never look back.

If ever a running back was poised to turn history upside down, if ever a running back was capable of altering the narrative that backs should never be chosen exceedingly high in the NFL Draft, it’s Penn State’s electric three-down back. He can run. He can catch passes. And he’s improved significantly as a pass-protector.

Imagine, if you can, a tandem of Andrew Luck and Barkley playing in what new head coach Frank Reich promises will be an offense that will rely heavily on the no-huddle attack. Imagine Barkley giving the Colts a running threat unlike any since Edgerrin James lined up behind Peyton Manning. Imagine Barkley providing Luck with an outlet in the passing game, capable of catching passes and making magic in space. Imagine.

“I’m a versatile player,’’ Barkley said. “I think I’ve shown on film that I can run the ball. I can run it between the tackles or outside. I can catch the ball out of the backfield. I can pass block. And I can play special team. I want to continue to grow my game and continue to be a complete player.’’

Barkley is 6-foot and currently weighs 233 pounds, one or two pounds heavier than when he dominated at Penn State. He’s been timed in the past at 4.38 seconds in the 40. His bench press numbers and his squat numbers are off the charts, especially for a young man his size. And if he does this week what everybody expects him to do, he will confirm his status as someone worthy of a top 5, even top 3 selection. Consider, nobody weighing at least 220 pounds has run faster than a 4.45 and put up 25-plus bench presses since 2000, and Barkley is expected to blow those numbers away.

Colts owner Jim Irsay seemed to hint at the Colts’ direction when he spoke recently: “You put (Andrew Luck) on that field, healed up, and all of a sudden you put an Edgerrin James type of player behind him, and you let this man (Luck) continue the job that he’s already begun to do,’’ Irsay said. “This is going to be a special place to be and a special place to play.’’

As expected, Barkley gave no indication where he’d like to end up in the draft, saying it would be a blessing to be picked first, fifth or last in the seventh round. But he gave one answer to a question about the Cleveland Browns that I found especially revealing and even endearing. Asked about the possibility of being chosen by the eternally bedraggled Browns, Barkley said, “That’d be awesome. Something bigger than you. If you go to a team like that, obviously, they’ve had some rough years. You want to be part of something like that. Something that’s bigger than yourself. Something that will leave a legacy... being a part of something special.’’

Remember, Barkley signed to play at Penn State at a time when the school was still reeling from the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal. That says something. That speaks to something greater than the kid’s talent.

By every account, this is a solid young man, clean off the field, the kind of player you plug and play and never worry about again.

“I don’t know if there’s a better, more high-class, high-character guy that I remember talking to prior to the draft,’’ Brandt said recently. “I was in love with him before I met him. Now (that we’ve met), I’m really in love with him.’’

In theory, the Cleveland Browns could take the Barkley/Chubb decision out of their hands, however unlikely. The Browns could select Barkley first, the Giants would select the quarterback they most prefer (Sam Darnold or Josh Allen), leaving the Colts with no decision at all. Chubb it would be, and everybody would walk away happy.

Talking to Browns watchers this week, though, I get the sense the Browns, who haven’t had a marquee quarterback since Bernie Kosar, are not going to mess around and are going to grab the quarterback they most covet — likely Darnold.

Just don’t dismiss Barkley because recent history says to dismiss him, especially at that rarefied spot in the draft. These kinds of backs — and he reminds me of first-ball Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson — don’t come around often. True, the Colts have a greater need for a pass rusher, but if Barkley shows the Colts he’s the next coming of Edge — or even better — they need to take that leap.

They won’t be sorry they did.