Saquon Barkley is running back to the head of the NFL draft class

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley speaks during a news conference at the NFL football scouting combine, Thursday, March 1, 2018, in Indianapolis. [Associated Press]
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley speaks during a news conference at the NFL football scouting combine, Thursday, March 1, 2018, in Indianapolis. [Associated Press]
Published March 2
Updated March 2

INDIANAPOLIS — Nobody is going to disagree if you say Saquon Barkley is the best running back in the NFL draft. So the only thing left to debate is whether he is also the best player in it.

The last running back to be taken No. 1 overall went to the same school as Barkley. Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter was the top pick in 1995 by the Bengals.

Running back is a position that seemed to be devalued for a few years, until Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott revitalized the Cowboys after being selected fourth overall in 2016.

Barkley is more impressive. Physically, the things he can do are freakish. He has moved enough iron to transform his body into something so outlandish that his college coach, James Franklin, once said Barkley is what you would get "if you had Frankenstein build a running back."

VIDEO: Barkley "without question" the best player in the draft.

The guy that Barkley most resembles in style, if not stature, is Barry Sanders. Although 2 inches taller (5 feet 10) and 33 pounds heavier (233) than the Hall of Fame running back, Barkley has tree trunks for legs.
Sequoia Barkley.

Were he still alive, former Bucs defensive coordinator Floyd Peters would describe Barkley the way he did Sanders one day sitting outside on the porch at the old One Buc Place.

"He's a 300-pound man who was cut off at the knees and had his shoes put back on," Peters said. "People who hit him around those thighs just bounce off. And he cuts like Bambi."

Barkley, 21, lights up when he hears the inevitable comparisons to Sanders, who was his favorite player though he was very young when the Lions star walked away from the game in 1999.

"Obviously, I was only alive for his last two years (in the league)," Barkley said at the scouting combine Thursday. "But Barry Sanders … with technology today and YouTube and highlight videos and stuff like that, at a young age I was able to see the things he was able to do on a football field.

"He was spectacular. He was an awesome runner. He was a guy I looked up to growing up, not only on the field but off the field. The way he carried himself. He was humble. When he scored a touchdown, he gave the ball to the ref. You look at his Football Life (episode on the NFL Network series). He was carrying cups to his offensive linemen. I think that's what a running back should be about. I think that's what our position should be about. I try to model myself after that."

On Thursday, Barkley bench-pressed 29 reps of 225 pounds, tying Georgia's Nick Chubb for the most by a running back at the combine. It is more than many offensive and defensive linemen recorded this week. At Penn State, Barkley power-cleaned 405 pounds to set a school record. He also squatted 525 pounds and bench-pressed 405, and has been clocked at 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

But Barkley's game tape is even better.

Unlike Sanders, he is a three-down back with the ability to run routes and catch like a receiver.

"I try to be a versatile player," Barkley said. "I'm very confident in myself. Whether the ball's on the 1-yard line or the 99-yard line, I like to think I can find a way to get into the end zone. I can do it all. I can go over the top of you. I can beat you with speed. I can beat you with some wiggle. I can run through you. I try to improve every day."

It's almost hard for some to believe this is the same kid from Whitehall (Pa.) High School who faked an injury to avoid the weight room and didn't become a full-time starter until his junior year. He looked headed to Rutgers until his ability could no longer be hidden from recruiters.

Barkley is from humble beginnings. His father, Alibay, and Alibay's wife, Tonya Johnson, moved from the projects in the Bronx, N.Y., to eventually settle in Coplay, Pa., a community of just more than 3,000 north of Allentown.

Alibay spent nearly a year in New York City's Rikers Island prison for gun possession and struggled with a crack cocaine addiction that put him there as a teenager. Saquon is the third of five children.

"My dad told me I've been saying I wanted to play in the NFL since I was 2," Barkley said.

By the end of sophomore year at Penn State, Barkley was a star, rushing for 1,496 yards on 272 carries and 18 touchdowns. His 194-yard rushing performance against USC in that season's Rose Bowl is one for the ages.

All this has left the Browns — if they decide to keep the No. 1 overall pick — with a dilemma:

Do they take Barkley No. 1 overall and address their quarterback position with the fourth overall selection? Or do they risk losing him to the Giants at No. 2 or the Colts at No. 3?

Barkley isn't shying away from becoming part of the Browns' possible turnaround despite their 10 straight losing seasons and failing to make the playoffs since 2002.

"You want to be part of something like that," he said. "Something that's bigger than yourself. Something that will leave a legacy. Being part of something special."

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