PHOENIX — The mentee got here before the mentor.
Well, wasn’t that unexpected?
Miles Sanders was always a step behind Saquon Barkley, but look who is still playing and who is again watching. Sanders is the leading rusher for the Eagles, who easily ran over their NFC competition to advance to Super Bowl 2023 against the Chiefs. Barkley led the Giants in rushing this past season, as he has done for three of his five NFL years — he played in only two games in 2020 and tied for the team’s rushing lead with Devontae Booker in 2021.
Barkley has not had a sniff of the Super Bowl, making the playoffs this season, for the first time, in his fifth year with the Giants.
The two running backs, friends from their shared time together at Penn State, got to the NFL via different pathways. Barkley was far more heralded as the No. 2 overall pick in 2018. A year later, Sanders went to the Eagles in the second round, with pick No. 53. This was in keeping with the way these players were viewed in State College, Pa. Barkley was the star, Sanders the understudy.
It made sense for both running backs to head to Penn State. Barkley was born in the The Bronx but grew up in various Pennsylvania locales — Bethlehem, Allentown and finally Coplay. Sanders is from just outside of Pittsburgh.
Sanders got to Penn State in 2016, one year after Barkley had already established himself by rushing for 1,076 yards in 2015 as a freshman. In Sanders’ first two years on campus, he was Barkley’s backup, unable to crack the lineup with much regularity. While Barkley was rushing for 1,496 yards in 2016 and 1,271 yards in 2017 — and also running for 36 touchdowns — Sanders was getting only 25 and 31 rushing attempts as a freshman and sophomore, respectively.
When Barkley left for the NFL after his junior year, Sanders finally got his chance as the feature back for the Nittany Lions and ran for 1,274 yards to rise to the level of a solid NFL prospect.
“I had a year on him, so I had a little more experience,” Barkley said this season. “We would compete in drills. We would compete in practice. And we always wanted to push each other, try to make each other better. And the goal was to try to make it to the NFL. I left first. I got there, and he came the year after me.”
Both are coming off comeback seasons. Barkley in 2021 missed three games with a sprained ankle, clearly was not fully back in form following reconstructive knee surgery a year earlier and finished with only 593 rushing yards. In 2022, Barkley did not miss a game with an injury and amassed a career-high 1,312 rushing yards. Sanders last season missed four games with hand and ankle injuries and ran for a career-low 754 yards and no touchdowns. This season, he ran for 1,236 yards and 11 touchdowns.
After he and Sanders struggled in 2021 Barkley sent his friend a direct message stating, “See you at the top,’’ confident both would rebound. As it turned out, that confidence was well-founded.
The four-year, $5.3 million rookie contract Sanders signed in 2019 expires after this season. Barkley is also without a contract, as the Giants picked up his fifth-year option in 2022 for $7.2 million and negotiations are underway to keep him off the open market, although the two sides are not close on numbers. Barkley turns 26 on Thursday. Sanders turns 26 on May 1. Both could be back with the teams that drafted them or in another uniform next season.
For now, Sanders suits up Sunday. Barkley will be watching.
“I love Miles,” Barkley said. “That’s someone I always wanted to see have great years and have success.”