Giants’ huge Saquon Barkley contract dilemma will be here soon

Time flies faster than Saquon Barkley running through a defense.

This is the final season before the 2018 NFL Draft class is eligible to negotiate contract extensions, and thus before the Giants face one of the fiercest debates in today’s NFL: Should we pay top dollar to a running back?

Finding anyone around the league who thinks the Giants and Barkley are not headed for a long and amicable marriage is difficult. The decision unofficially was made on April 26, 2018, when the Giants — with more than three to five years of productivity in mind — made Barkley the highest drafted running back since 2006 when they took him with the No. 2 pick.

But when will the commitment be solidified? Next offseason, in line with the pre-fourth-season timing of extensions received by Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Christian McCaffrey? Or will the Giants push off talks until the NFL salary cap recovers from coronavirus-caused lost revenue and the direction of their franchise crystalizes?

“I don’t think he will give them a choice but to do a deal next year,” former Eagles and Browns president Joe Banner told The Post. “And I don’t think he should.”

Barkley’s first two years as a controversy-free superstar suggest an aversion to replicating Elliott’s public spat and holdout with the Cowboys in 2019 — or Odell Beckham Jr.’s tense dance with the Giants in 2018 — in favor of McCaffrey’s quiet negotiation with the Panthers earlier this year.

“It’s not about getting an early deal,” one NFL agent said. “It’s about getting a good deal and understanding cash flow, new money, new guarantees. Going through four years is the best chance to put pressure on the team. The only reason to worry is  fear of injury.”

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman realizes next offseason people will be “banging on me” to re-sign Barkley, who is one of two players in NFL history (Barry Sanders) with 3,400 yards from scrimmage and at least 20 touchdowns on fewer than 625 touches in his first two seasons. He had the sixth-fastest run in the NFL last season, according to NextGenStats.

“There’s a character side of it, a sportsmanship side, a personality side. It’s part of how they draft: You are a ‘Giants guy,’ ” Giants great Tiki Barber said. “I don’t expect acrimony with Saquon. People say the running back is dead. It is — unless you have the guy. Then he’s very valuable.

Barkley’s original four-year, $31.1 million fully guaranteed contract runs through 2021, when he will receive the final $4.9 million. The Giants could keep him from free agency through 2024 with three straight high-paying one-year add-ons by exercising a team option and two franchise tags.

But running backs are learning to take a stand sooner — before the toll from playing the position sets in — from recent standoffs between Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers and Melvin Gordon and the Chargers.

Adrian Peterson is the only running back in NFL history with career earnings greater than $65 million — tied with offensive guard for the fewest at that benchmark, per OverTheCap.com. As the Giants’ top playmaker and the post-Eli Manning face of the franchise, Barkley holds a winning hand, amplified by the salary-cap benefit of quarterback Daniel Jones on his rookie contract.

“I think he has more leverage, but it’s not because of the quality of the team,” Banner said. “It’s because of where they drafted him and the vocalness about how they plan on building the team around being able to run.”

After Elliott set a running back-record for most guaranteed money ($50 million) when he re-signed, McCaffrey topped the highest average annual salary ($16 million) on his new deal. Barkley ranks fifth and eighth in those measurements on his current deal — at least until relatively underpaid Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara renegotiate.

So, the target range is clear. How to get there is tricky.

“The exact dilemma a team has is you don’t want to alienate him, and if you don’t offer him more than McCaffrey, then there is a really good chance he reacts badly,” Banner said. “You don’t want emotion in negotiations.

“You want it to be very smooth: ‘We’d rather have you than any other back in the league. We want to make you the highest-paid guy.’ But you are worried that if we start this high, then maybe he shoots for the stars and we are liable to be boxed in. I suspect they will make him the highest paid by a little bit.”

Jason Fitzgerald, founder of OverTheCap, projects a four-year, $68 million contract, with $40 million guaranteed. CBS Sports analyst Joel Corry, a former agent, would increase the minimum annual ask to $18 million over 4-6 years.

“As a running back, you are not going to get two bites of the apple,” Corry said. “Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore have played forever, but they aren’t making any big money anymore. You have to take a stand as a running back after three years if you are producing.”

Barkley paid close attention during a defining offseason for running backs.

The Rams cut Gurley, but he earned $22 million more than the baseline for his first five years because of an early extension signed in 2018. Gordon found a disappointing free-agent market after a failed fifth-year holdout. The Panthers weren’t scared off from rewarding McCaffrey.

“In the case of Gurley, I think maybe we have seen a little impact in that the guarantee packages are not as bold as his,” Fitzgerald said. “Gordon should be a warning to players if their teams are not offering massive extension money.”

The best precedent for the Giants’ handling of Barkley was set in 2005.

With two years remaining on his contract, the 30-year-old Barber received a two-year extension with a pay bump just because he earned the right to be in line with the top-paid backs. Former GM Ernie Accorsi — a sounding board when the Giants are making decisions — described Barber in a way then that Gettleman could echo now.

“He has a young man’s body and he works at his craft,” Accorsi said. “The actuarial tables on running backs might say something different … but this is a people business and you have to look at who you’re dealing with.”

Barkley turns 24 in February and is respected by Giants ownership.

“He is a threat every time he is on the field,” John Mara said after Barkley’s rookie season. “And he provides us with such great attitude, such great charisma and such leadership ability that he makes your organization better. We’re excited about the future.”

In Barkley’s shoes, Barber would want to reset the market but wouldn’t leverage a holdout threat until 2022.

“It would definitely be unpopular in New York and I don’t espouse that for Saquon,” Barber said. “If he stays healthy and lives up to expectations, he will be in line for it. I believe that Saquon is the perfect guy for this city.”

Three major uncertainties will play out between now and the beginning of extension talks.

Does Barkley remain healthy — he missed three games due to a high ankle sprain last season — and dominate like he did as a rookie?

What is the 2021 salary cap? It could be as low as $175 million per team — down from $198.2 million in 2020 and projections of $210 million — after an agreement between the league and players union. With Patrick Mahomes and Myles Garrett as noteworthy exceptions, teams are reducing long-term financial commitments during the pandemic.

Who will be at the negotiating table? Gettleman, who drafted McCaffrey for the Panthers and Barkley, hitched part of his legacy to Barkley and remains enamored. But he won’t survive a third straight season of five or fewer wins.

If the Giants are outside searching for a replacement, the next GM could be from the growing camp of executives who believe running back is an oversaturated market and cheap rotational production allows for repurposed cap spending.

Even then, however, Barkley has the feel of an exception.

“If you have a special player, you pay a special player,” Corry said. “The stars should be aligned for him. Who do you have to replace Saquon? Nobody.”

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