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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Saquon Barkley and Sam Darnold ready and able to handle the pressure

A composite image of Giants rookie running back

A composite image of Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley and Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke; Patrick E. McCarthy

As if there already isn’t enough pressure on Saquon Barkley and Sam Darnold . . .

During the run-up to last month’s NFL Draft, Giants general manager Dave Gettleman was asked what he needed to see in a player drafted with the second overall pick.

“When we set the board and have our conversations, is that guy worth being the second pick in the draft? Can we picture him someday maybe putting on a gold jacket?” Gettleman said. “You have to think that way. You can’t draft anybody with the second pick hoping.”

Gettleman wasn’t ready to reveal then that he’d take the Penn State running back, but now that Barkley is wearing a Giants uniform, the GM unwittingly placed an immense burden on the 21-year-old rookie.

Same scenario, different voice with Darnold.

The Jets were the beneficiary of some good fortune on the opening night of the draft when the Browns took Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Giants passed on a quarterback and took Barkley. That left USC quarterback Darnold, considered by most scouts to be the most highly coveted passer in this year’s draft, available at No. 3. The Jets had their man.

With some experts suggesting the Jets should tank their 2017 season as a way to guarantee getting Darnold, the team instead went a long way toward building a personality with its younger players — and still came away with Darnold. A bold trade by GM Mike Maccagnan allowed the Jets to move from No. 6 to No. 3, and Darnold was theirs.

Jets CEO Christopher Johnson raised the bar of expectation to dizzying heights during an appearance at the BTIG Charity Day event in New York on Tuesday, essentially proclaiming Darnold as the definitive answer to the Jets’ most vexing problem since the departure of Joe Namath after the 1976 season.

“I think people are going to look back 20 years from now and say that this is the moment that the Jets shifted into a new gear and became a great team,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve got a real future with this kid, and he isn’t even 21 yet. We might have a long time with this young man. I hope so, because right now, I think he is really our future.”

Welcome to the pressure cooker, young man.

Barkley and Darnold will be linked for years to come, and their careers undoubtedly will be compared for any number of reasons. That starts with the fact that both were picked near the top of the first round in a rare draft-day doubleheader for the Giants and Jets, and it could become even more important down the road if the Giants find themselves lacking at quarterback — even though Gettleman says he doesn’t care about anyone who suggests he’ll come to regret not taking a QB despite Eli Manning’s advanced age.

The weight of expectation already is immense, and neither team has even held its first training camp practice.

The encouraging news for Barkley and Darnold: Both appear wired to handle the pressure, albeit with different personalities.

While Barkley’s ebullience and enthusiasm is there for all to see, Darnold has more of a laid-back affect befitting his time spent in Southern California. But both are mindful to not let outside expectations define them or inhibit their growth.

“I know a lot of people try and set expectations for me,” Barkley said this past week at Giants rookie minicamp. “No offense, but I set my own expectations. I don’t care what anyone says in terms of that I have to rush for this or score this. It does not matter to me. I set my own expectations and have my own standards. If I follow you guys — not saying you guys but the media — and try and reach expectations of the fans and the media because I am a high draft pick, if I follow that, I will never become a great player. It starts with myself. I have to believe in myself, set goals for myself, set expectations for myself and continue to work for those goals every single day.”

If that logic doesn’t suggest Barkley is going into this with the right attitude, then nothing will. The kid has a good head on his shoulders, there’s no question about that.

Even Gettleman’s suggestion that he needed to draft a Hall of Famer with such a high pick isn’t a daunting backdrop for Barkley. Gettleman even said Barkley has been “touched by the hand of God.”

“That is a great compliment,” Barkley said. “Hall of Famer and the No. 2 guy should be a Hall of Famer. But when you think about it and you come into the NFL, that is the goal. You want to get a gold jacket and work yourself and your butt off to get a gold jacket.

“Touched by God, he talked to us yesterday and said that everyone in the room is touched by God. You are, it is true. You have the talent. You are blessed to be in the NFL and to be able to play in the NFL. Not many people are able to accomplish that and have that talent to do that. It is a great compliment and I am so happy that I have a guy that believes in me and in my talent.”

Darnold went back to California to chill out a bit after the rookie minicamp, but he too showed a maturity in addressing the notion that he is the Jets’ savior. In fact, when surrounded by a gaggle of reporters and television cameras for his introductory news conference, he welcomed the attention.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “I love it. I understand that it’s a part of the whole deal. I love it, though. I am embracing it and having fun with it.”

Darnold was circumspect about his role, neglecting to stake a claim to the starter’s job before he’s earned that right.

“My goal is to do whatever the coaches ask me to do,” he said. “That’s how I am going to go about it. If they want me to start, great; if they don’t, great. I am just going to be the best that I can be.’’

Darnold is undaunted by the size of the market he now plays in and doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the expectations placed on him, either. Especially by the man who will sign his paychecks.

“I embrace [the challenge of winning a Super Bowl], but I understand every single day that it’s a process,” Darnold said. “You have to come in here and earn respect. I’m not going to come in here and demand it. I know that I’m a quarterback and that I have to be a leader on the field and off it, as well. Just understanding that and going about my everyday life as I normally would.”

They are two high picks under extraordinary pressure to help their franchises. They also are two level-headed individuals who appear to have the wherewithal to endure the process, wherever it might lead.

The hope among Giants and Jets fans is that it leads to a championship.


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