Saquon Barkley of the Giants runs the ball in the first...

Saquon Barkley of the Giants runs the ball in the first half against the Commanders at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

PHOENIX — It certainly wasn’t part of any formal negotiation, and it seems as if the Giants are more than willing to go through this upcoming season with their star running back on the franchise tag, but the last time John Mara spoke to Saquon Barkley he played some of the strongest cards he holds.

Eli Manning. Michael Strahan. Tiki Barber.

Three of a kind, so to speak.

“We had a very good conversation,” Mara, the co-owner of the Giants, said at the NFL’s annual league meetings on Monday. “I told him how much I wanted him here, wanted him to be a Giant. My dream is that he play his whole career as a Giant like Eli did, like Strahan did, like Tiki did. And I mentioned to him: Look what they're doing off the field now. I think he would like that as well.”

For now, though, the relationship between team and player goes only as far as this upcoming season. Barkley was set to hit free agency this spring but after the Giants were able to sign quarterback Daniel Jones to a long-term deal earlier this month, they used the franchise tag on Barkley.

That will pay him $10.091 million for 2023.

Not bad considering the depressed nature of the running back market. But certainly not what Barkley was hoping for from his second contract.

General manger Joe Schoen, also at Monday's meetings, said he had conversations with Barkley’s agent last week. Schoen took a far less emotional angle toward Barkley, noting that there is no current long-term offer on the table from the team and that the tag pays Barkley among the top six or so running backs in the league.

“He’s on the franchise tag and until we come to some sort of agreement down the road, then that’s what it is,” he said.

The Giants have other options including rescinding the tag (there are no plans to do so) and trading Barkley (Mara said he does not want to do that and would be “very surprised” if it happened). The window to sign Barkley to a long-term deal closes in July.

More immediately, the offseason program for the Giants begins April 16 and there is no indication what Barkley’s intentions are toward those voluntary activities without a long-term contract. Mara said he would prefer Barkley be there and for his contract situation to not become a distraction. The Giants made a lot of progress in the past year but having a potentially disgruntled star player and leader of the team could offset that forward momentum.

Despite his hopes and wishes, Mara said he is not going to blank check the matter.

“Our message to him is we still very much want you back,” Mara said. “We want you to be one of the leaders of this team, want you to be one of the faces of this franchise. But there's a limit as to how far we can go. I mean, we have to build a team around you. And we've gone just about as far as we can [with the offers before employing the tag].”

Mara noted he has been through similar situations before and that talks with even some of the most identifiable Giants players — Manning, Strahan and Barber among them — sometimes became dicey.

“You just go through these negotiations with your better players,” he said. “It's not the first time we've been through it and I'm still hopeful at some point we'll be able to get something done.”

Notes & quotes: Speaking for the first time since signing Jones to his four-year, $160 million contract, Mara said he was pleased to have his quarterback situation stabilized. “He's the type of individual you want representing your franchise,” Mara said. “He had a terrific year last year. He's still young. And I think if we put the right pieces around him there's no limit as to how high he can climb … He's exactly what you want.” … While Schoen left the door ajar for a possible reunion with free agent WR Odell Beckham Jr., Mara pushed it open further. “I certainly would be a favorite of that if they can make it work,” Mara said. “That's always the trick.” … Schoen said there have been no talks about a contract restructuring or extension for Leonard Williams, but there have been continuing conversations with Dexter Lawrence about a long-term deal. Lawrence is entering the final year of his rookie deal after the Giants exercised their fifth-year option on him a year ago.

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