New Philadelphia Eagles running back Saquon Barkley speaks during an...

New Philadelphia Eagles running back Saquon Barkley speaks during an introductory news conference at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia on Thursday, March 14, 2024. (Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS) Credit: TNS/Yong Kim

ORLANDO, Fla. — John Mara said he was “sick” over Saquon Barkley leaving the Giants in free agency and heading to the Eagles, but fired back at those who turned on the running back for his decision.

“Let’s be honest, I would have preferred it be out of the division,” the Giants’ co-owner said at the NFL’s annual meeting on Monday of Barkley’s ultimate destination. “But I have enormous respect for him. The people who are criticizing him for doing that, to me, are way off base. I mean, these guys, their careers are so short. I understand you have to take the best deal out there and that’s what he did. I don’t begrudge him that. I am not looking forward to having to play against him twice a year, but I’ll always have enormous respect and appreciation for everything he did for us.”

Mara was on record as wanting Barkley to be a “Giant for life” and said general manager Joe Schoen was very aware of that desire, but as free agency began earlier this month the Giants did not have an offer on the table for him.

“At the end of the day the feeling was our resources needed to be allocated elsewhere,” Mara said, pointing to upgrades on the offensive line and the acquisition and new deal for edge rusher Brian Burns from the Panthers. “Whether that ends up being the right decision or not remains to be seen. But was I hoping that he’d be back? Absolutely I was.”

The Giants could have traded Barkley during the 2023 season and received something in return but elected not to. Mara said part of that decision was to avoid appearances of giving up on the season, but he also felt “we kind of owed him” the chance to pick his next team rather than be traded somewhere based on the Giants’ decision.

Schoen, who ultimately made the call on letting Barkley go, was far less sentimental than Mara regarding the turn of events.

“You can’t keep them all,” he said.

It was Mara, though, who had to break that news to his 14 grandchildren, all of whom, he said, own a number 26 jersey.

“That’s unfortunately part of the business,” Mara said. “You lose guys who you really like and who are really good players. The players come and go. You have very few chances to have a Michael Strahan, an Eli Manning, It just doesn’t happen that often in this business.”

Notes & quotes: Schoen said he has been in touch with the representatives for Darren Waller, who is mulling retirement, but has not received a definite answer on whether the tight end intends to play for the Giants in 2024. “We just have to be patient,” Schoen said . . . Daniel Jones, recovering from a torn ACL, began running on solid ground this week, Schoen said . . . Mara said it is “ridiculous” that the Giants have not been able to fix their offensive line despite more than a decade of work at it but believes the signings this offseason will help. Schoen said there are no plans to move right tackle Evan Neal to guard despite his struggles there in 2023 and said newly signed Jermaine Eleumanor may begin the season at guard despite having experience at tackle . . . The Giants were granted marketing rights in Germany under the NFL’s International Committee on Monday but Mara said there have not yet been any discussions about future Giants home games there . . . Mara said there will be “significant renovations” to MetLife Stadium when it hosts the World Cup in 2026, including the installation of a grass field, but said the technology is not yet there for a permanent grass surface in a building that is home to two NFL teams. “I want to get to the point where the experts can tell us that late in the season we can have a safe, playable grass field, and when we get to that point, then maybe we’ll make the switch,” Mara said. “We’re not there yet.” Said Jets owner Woody Johnson on the matter: “I think getting to the point where we have the best field for the players and the competition that we can possibly have is what we’re looking for . . . You’d like to have a field that’s uniform, that’s consistent across the league, whether it’s grass or some other surface depending on where you are so the players feel good about it.”

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