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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

NFL preseason opener is far from meaningless for top draft picks

Giants RB Saquon Barkley, Jets QB Sam Darnold and Browns QB Baker Mayfield will have plenty of eyes on them during their first appearances on an NFL field this week.

A composite image of Giants rookie running back

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

Less than four months ago, they heard their names called by Roger Goodell, which began their NFL careers and delivered hope for the future of three downtrodden franchises – two of which share MetLife Stadium.

Giants and Jets fans will get an early read on Saquon Barkley and Sam Darnold, and also will check in on Baker Mayfield as the preseason kicks off Thursday and Friday. Barkley will play for the Giants against the Browns on Thursday as Mayfield debuts for the Browns, albeit as a backup to Tyrod Taylor. On Friday night, Jets fans will see whether Darnold can stake a claim to the opening day starting job as the Jets host the Falcons.  

Meaningless preseason games? Not for these three guys, and not for the teams that had enough conviction to select them and stake their futures to the offensive players’ development.

Barkley has looked terrific in training camp, having learned the playbook quickly and seamlessly grasping first-year coach Pat Shurmur’s offense. But it’s one thing to look good in the controlled environment of training camp practices. It’s another to see live NFL action for the first time.

Barkley can’t wait.

“Definitely looking forward to the first hit,” Barkley said this week. “The first hit in the game is the thing that knocks everything out, whether you’re nervous or overthinking stuff. I’m definitely looking forward to the opportunity.”

So are the Giants. With general manager Dave Gettleman convinced that Eli Manning still has a few good years left, the Giants went with Barkley to immediately upgrade an offense that had struggled to produce a competent running game. Even in their Super Bowl years of 2007 and 2011, the running game was often inconsistent. But with Barkley, who also excels in the passing game, the Giants have their first big-time back since Rodney Hampton in the Nineties.

“A lot of rookies make some mistakes in their first game, but I’m going to try to stay away from that,” Barkley said. “Just continue to get better throughout the game.”

If Barkley shows he’s ready from the start, it will be a massively important development for the Giants, especially with the 37-year-old Manning’s limited window of opportunity.

Darnold is at a similar place that Manning was as a rookie in 2004. With Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater ahead of him on the depth chart (Manning was a backup to Kurt Warner his first year), there’s no rush to make an immediate decision about whether Darnold will begin the season as the starter. Things worked out wonderfully for Manning, who spent the first half of the season watching Warner before Tom Coughlin made him the starter. Less than four years later, Manning had won his first of two Super Bowl titles.

 “I think I’m just going to go out there and play my game,” Darnold said. “First NFL game, going out there and being emotional is something I’m looking forward to. At the same time, I realize I have to be smart in all my decisions and sound with everything. It’s definitely going to be awesome to be out there for my first NFL game.”

Like Darnold, Mayfield will see action with the backups against the Giants.

“It’s starting to slow down, but it’s going to take a little bit to get to the level I was at Oklahoma," Mayfield said. “That's just part of the growing process. There’s been a lot of improvement since I first got here for rookie minicamp that it's slowed down exponentially. I’m excited where it’s at right now.”

It’s showtime for three rookies who hope to deliver big-time for teams that desperately need the help. 

New York Sports