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ESPN’s Kiper Jr. on Barkley: ‘You’re hoping he can be like Fournette’

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Fixing the Cleveland Browns will be anything but easy, however, ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. sees a scenario playing out where the Browns could grab a quarterback with the first overall pick and then snag Saquon Barkley -- the top player on Kiper's Big Board -- at No. 4 to try and turn around their abysmal offense.

"With Barkley, the way he balances, the strength is the lower body, the leg strength, he can balance through traffic," Kiper Jr. said Thursday on a conference call. "He's a heck of a player and you're hoping that he's going to be like (Leonard) Fournette, (Ezekiel) Elliott and (Todd) Gurley. That's what you're hoping. He can pass block very effectively and catches the ball out of the backfield and not only swing passes but also down the field. He's a heck of a player.

"For Cleveland, if you get the quarterback at No. 1 and the running back at No. 4 you're on your way because the defense is pretty good there."

While Barkley said the night he declared for the draft that he would be willing to play for any and all teams, it's far from a guarantee that he'd even still be available at No. 4, largely because of the needs of the Giants and the Colts, who hold the second and third-overall picks.

Perhaps that would be in Barkley's best interest, but with the Giants needing a quarterback, offensive tackle and running back he could land there or even in Indianapolis where a banged up offense with some key pieces could benefit from a stud running back.

"The Colts certainly could look at him, the Jets could look at him, the Giants at No. 2 could look at him," Kiper Jr. said. "Orleans Darkwa gave them a lot but you look at a guy like Barkley who is a heck of a talent who can do everything -- and he blocks extremely well which is very underrated -- ... To me, he has great value and he's in the mix for the Giants."

The last time the Browns took a running back in the first round was in 2012 when they drafted Trent Richardson at No. 3, and it did not yield the type of results associated with a playmaker drafted that early.

Richardson, the former Alabama standout who was supposed to be the key piece that the Cleveland offense would build around, was slowed by injuries and was traded to the Colts after just 17 games with the Browns in an effort for the Browns to continue their rebuild.

The fall of the NFL running from back being drafted so high in the first round -- with the exception of Fournette, the versatile Christian McCaffrey, Elliott and Gurley who all went within the top-10 picks --can largely be traced back to Richardson's struggles, Kiper Jr. said.

However, the theory of not taking a running back within the top-5 picks has gone out the window the last two draft classes as Fournette was selected No. 4 overall last year and Elliott was drafted in the same spot the year before. Gurley was the first back off the board in the 2015 NFL Draft, coming at No. 10 overall, a now proven special talent that nine teams ahead of the Rams missed out on. Twenty running backs have been drafted in the first round since 2008 with just four of them going within the top five.

There have been plenty of running back misses in the first round in the past 10 classes, which is why Barkley looking like a slam dunk player at the next level should make him an enticing top-5 pick. Still, should a back not be among the top eight or 10 players then the thinking is that teams will wait until later rounds when they can find better value at the position. That likely won't work in the case of Barkley, but historically it's proven beneficial for teams.

It certainly worked for the Saints last year who snagged Alvin Kamara in the third round and also for the Chiefs who drafted Kareem Hunt in the third round as well. Of the four teams playing this weekend in the conference championship games only one of them has a first-round back on their roster and that of course is Jacksonville with the rookie Fournette.

"Elite guys go," Kiper Jr. said of running backs. "In this draft, if you're looking at Barkley as that type of player then he's going to go in the top 5. A lot of teams are going to say look at how many running backs and look at how many playoff teams had a running back last year that they drafted in the first round? One, and that was the Cowboys with Ezekiel Elliott.

"You look at this year in the final four and Minnesota had Dalvin Cook that was a second-round pick and he was looking great until he got hurt and now (Latavius) Murray is their guy," he continued. "New England with James White and Deion Lewis and what they were able to get. The Eagles are the same thing. (Jay) Ajayi was not an early-round pick in Miami and (LeGarrette) Blount was undrafted."

Kiper's assessment of Barkley comes the same week that Gil Brandt, the former VP of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys and an NFL.com senior analyst, gushed over Barkley at the Walter Camp Football Foundation awards.

Brandt's lofty praise shouldn't come as much of a surprise if you've been following along here. Ahead of the season I spoke to Brandt who has a policy of not evaluating underclassmen for fear that his analysis could sway their decision to turn pro. However, he did tell me that Barkley at that point in his college career was a better outside runner than Elliott was in college.

“He’s the real deal,” Brandt told me. “He has everything you want. He can catch. He can avoid the tackles. He’s strong. He’s fast. I don’t have enough superlatives to say about the guy. I think he’s as good as any running back that we’ve had come out in the last five years."

A running back hasn't been selected No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft since former Nittany Lion Ki-Jana Carter was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1995. Since then 14 quarterbacks have been selected No. 1 overall, as well as four defensive ends, three offensive tackles and one wide receiver.

Should Barkley buck that trend it would certainly be a surprise, but then again with Cleveland picking first nothing can be ruled out.

QUICK HITS

• Kiper Jr. on safety Marcus Allen: "It's a pretty good safety class overall. Right now I have him as a fifth-round pick, the No. 10 safety so maybe a fifth or sixth-round pick."

• He said linebacker Jason Cabinda also has a fifth or sixth-round grade.

• It will be a large draft class of Nittany Lions, which means a lot of showcase events. Cabinda, Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren, Grant Haley and DaeSean Hamilton are in St. Petersburg, Florida this week ahead of Saturday's East-West Shrine Game. Safety Troy Apke will play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Pasadena, California on Saturday. Allen, Christian Campbell and Mike Gesicki will be in Mobile, Alabama next week ahead of the Reese’s Senior Bowl that will be played next Saturday.

• Want more Barkley draft talk plus everything else Penn State football? This week's podcast is available for easy listening right here:

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