BEREA, OH - AUGUST 19: Saquon Barkley #26 of the...

BEREA, OH - AUGUST 19: Saquon Barkley #26 of the New York Giants runs a drill during a joint practice with the Cleveland Browns on August 19, 2021 in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images) Credit: Getty Images/Nick Cammett

It’s first-and-goal and the end zone is within sight.

Normally Saquon Barkley would strap on his cape, take to the air and try to hurl himself over the line of scrimmage into the end zone. But this drive isn’t for a touchdown. It has a more important outcome.

It’s his return to the football field.

The running back recovering from a torn ACL last September has just a few more obstacles to clear before he is given the green light to participate in Sunday’s regular-season opener, Joe Judge said on Monday. If he is able to get through the next few days of practices without incident or setback he is expected to be declared available to face the Broncos.

Just the way he and the Giants have been planning it for nearly a year now.

While they all have gone out of their way to avoid putting a timeframe on Barkley’s return, Sept. 12 was always the most important date they were working toward. Barkley began this training camp on PUP, started working his way into drills, took on more and more reps, and last week handled what Judge called "a good amount" of contact in practice for the first time since his injury.

There will be more of that this week. The Giants are expected to be in full pads for Wednesday’s workout, which could be the last chance for them to test Barkley’s readiness. If he passes it as he has all of the team’s earlier mile-markers along the way, he’ll be on the field Sunday.

"I want to see how he responds to a couple things physically within his body and make the best assessment going forward for him this weekend, and going forward past that," Judge said.

Barkley has progressed along the prescribed path to Sunday so efficiently that it would come as a surprise if he were not able to play.

How much he plays is another question, although Judge seemed to indicate that a nod from the medical staff would not come with a snap-count caveat.

"You may manage somebody’s reps based on practice or a game, whatever it may be, but to me, when a doctor says someone is healthy for a game, you’ve got to be healthy enough to play," he said. "You only take a limited number of guys to a game, so if the doctor says someone is good to go, they’ve got to be good to go for us."

Even with a Week 2 game in Washington looming four days after the opener?

"We’re really focused on the first game right now," Judge said. "That second game is obviously a very real thing being a short turnaround, but the reality is we’ve got the Broncos coming this week and we’ve got to have all our attention on that."

As has been the case with Barkley since the beginning of this drive. Despite the coy "day by day" refrain that was consistently put out there and the voiced uncertainty that he might not arrive at this point at this time, Barkley is exactly where the Giants need him to be.

Physically and mentally.

Sticking with that demurring posture for just a few more days, Judge on Monday would not even allow himself to comment on how Barkley is feeling.

"I can’t speak for him directly," Judge said. "But he was smiling today."

When he plays on Sunday, everyone else on the Giants will be grinning, too.

Notes & quotes: Beyond Barkley, Judge said he is "optimistic" about the rest of the injured players as they make their way toward Sunday, including WRs Kenny Golladay (hamstring) and Kadarius Toney (COVID-19/hamstring) and CB Adoree’ Jackson (ankle). "We saw a lot of guys make a lot of gains last week," Judge said. Even TE Evan Engram (calf) has the potential to make it back by kickoff, Judge said. "I don’t think we’ll make any final decisions until later in the week," he said of player availability for Sunday … The Giants named their captains for the season: Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley and Nick Gates on offense; Blake Martinez, Logan Ryan and Jabrill Peppers on defense; and Graham Gano on special teams … Judge said as of Monday afternoon it appeared none of the vaccinated players who were allowed to travel away from the facility during the three-day break tested positive for COVID-19 upon their return on Monday. Vaccinated players are tested once a week. Unvaccinated players were required to maintain their daily testing throughout the weekend … OL Billy Price cleared the COVID-19 protocols upon arrival in a trade with the Bengals and was practicing for the first time with the Giants on Monday.

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