So far, the thing that has impressed the Giants most about Saquon Barkley is, well, Saquon Barkley.
Maybe it’s because it’s been a while since he was in any game action carrying a football. A hamstring injury sidelined him for a few weeks this preseason and he hasn’t played since Aug. 9 against the Browns. That’s a month out of the public eye, a month without any clips to break Twitter or make the nightly Top 10s.
But behind the scenes, he’s been pushing forward on his goal to not only be a great running back but a leader as a rookie on a Giants team that already has a good number of experienced playmakers. So when you ask Giants veterans about Barkley, particularly what they have learned about him this summer as a newcomer to the NFL and the Giants, they invariably talk about him.
Not his speed. Not his size. Not his moves. Him.
Wide receiver Sterling Shepard marvels at his preparation. Shepard said he sits near Barkley in meetings and the rookie is constantly watching video clips of other great running backs, both from the current era and those of the past.
Offensive tackle Nate Solder is impressed by the way Barkley has approached each of the linemen who will be blocking for him, building relationships with them as unique individuals and not just as a five-piece machine that he will be running behind. Barkley has even offered to take the group to dinner just to bind closer.
Defensive tackle Damon Harrison said it’s rare for an offensive rookie to cross the imaginary line in the locker room and befriend defensive players, but that’s exactly what Barkley has done. So far, he’s been everything he was built up to be: perfect.
“You look at guys who come in and they make a lot of mistakes, but Saquon is the complete opposite,” Shepard said. “He’s got his head on his shoulders. You’re not going to get any problems out of him. He wants to be a leader. That’s what he talks about all the time.”
Even when he was recovering from that hamstring injury, a setback that he seems to have cleared as if jumping over a cornerback on one of his highlight- reel runs, Barkley was impressive. His mental reps, the questions he asked of Eli Manning and others during and after the practices he watched, all combined to make folks forget that he’s still just a rookie. Still just 21 years old. And he still hasn’t played in a regular-season game.
“I can tell he loves football because of the way he works and how he goes about his business,” cornerback Janoris Jenkins said. “I can’t wait to see him play.”
If the Giants like him now, they’ll love him when he gets on the field.
That’s about to happen. Barkley will be on the field for Sunday’s opener against the Jaguars, which is where his true value will be measured. Besides rushing yardage and receiving totals, statisticians also might have to add columns for ankle-busting cuts, defenders hurdled and TBTA (total breaths taken away).
There will be plenty of handoffs, but to get the Full Saquon, the Giants also will use Barkley in the passing game.
“That’s what makes him special, the fact that he can be a receiver out of the backfield,” Manning said. “It just makes him that three-down back, finding ways to get him the ball in space. That’s a matchup we like. If we get man-to-man, that’s a matchup we like in the mix. Getting him the ball and letting him be an athlete, get the ball to him in space where he can make guys miss and get some big gains for us. If teams want to play zone and drop back, having the ability to throw checkdowns and let him make some plays that way.”
Others expect the same.
“The one thing about Saquon is that he’s hard to tackle in space one on one,” NFL Network analyst Reggie Bush said. “I want to see him out in space. Out lined up on a linebacker or running some slant routes, however they’re going to use him, I think it’s going to be exciting.”
NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner knows what a running back like that can do. He had one in Marshall Faulk when he brought the Rams to two Super Bowls in three years.
“You can have a guy like Odell Beckham Jr. who is a phenomenal player, but you always know he’s going to get the best defender on the other team,” Warner said.
A running back, though?
“Those are the biggest mismatches in football, when you get linebackers on really, really talented players.”
Like, say, Barkley.
“If he can do everything we think he can do, I think he’s going to present so many matchup problems,” Warner said. “If you could move him to the outside, we used to do that with Marshall and teams would debate, ‘Can we put a linebacker out there on him or do we have to cover him with a corner?’ If they cover him with a corner, now all of a sudden Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt have a linebacker on them in the slot and they have to play zone coverage.”
Transfer that to the Giants’ personnel.
“If OBJ has a linebacker on him,” Warner said, “game over.”
Don't be ‘Superman’
Warner’s prediction did come with an “if,” you might have noticed — if Barkley can live up to the hype.
It’s a pretty high bar, arguably one no Giants rookie has been saddled with since Manning came to the team for a pile of draft picks, looking to maintain his family’s legacy.
Barkley arrives as the second overall pick in the draft, the Giants’ highest selection since 1981, when they landed the greatest player in franchise history, Lawrence Taylor. Barkley has been ordained by general manager Dave Gettleman as being “touched by the hand of God” and described as a gold jacket pick.
Plus he’s sharing a stadium (and back pages) with Jets starting quarterback Sam Darnold. You know, the one the Giants passed on and handed to the Jets with the No. 3 pick in order to take Barkley.
That’s a lot of pressure.
“If I were to give him any advice, it’s that you don’t have to be Superman,” Bush said. “You don’t have to go out every game and rush for 100-plus yards. You can find different ways to be effective. I mean, every running back wants to rush for 100 yards in every game, right? But he doesn’t have to do that. He doesn’t have to be Superman. He just has to be effective because he has so many other weapons around him. The sooner he can understand that, the better he’ll be able to play.”
Bush entered the NFL in a not-so-dissimilar position. He was the last running back to be taken second overall, going to a Saints team that hadn’t won anything since the Battle of New Orleans.
“I was looked at as the savior,” Bush said.
So how would Reggie Bush the rookie running back have reacted to Reggie Bush the TV talking head suggesting to him that he needn’t put extra pressure on himself? He laughed.
“I’m not sure how I would receive it because I always had this chip on my shoulder that I wanted to be Superman,” Bush said. “I wanted to go out and flash and dash and wow the audience and the fans and my teammates. It’s never a bad thing telling a rookie that, it’s only a good thing. But the more you tell them and the more you can tell them, the better off they’ll be.”
Start of something big
How good will Barkley be? It’s impossible to tell. There are so many variables, and that one question spawns even more. Will he stay healthy? Will he stay on a team with a star receiver such as Beckham? Will the Giants’ offensive line improve and continue to improve?
One thing is for sure: Barkley has the complete toolbox to build himself into one of the all-time great players in history. His on-the-field athleticism matched with his off-the-field approach are rare qualities. Together they bond for a chemical reaction that should, if everything else falls into place, allow him to fulfill the promise with which he is entering the NFL.
A highly anticipated entrance that will take place Sunday.
“I know a lot of people try and set expectations for me,” he said with nonchalance at the sheer volume of that noise, that hype, that anticipation. “No offense to you guys, but I set my own expectations.”