EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Saquon Barkley took a handoff in the Giants‘ practice against the Jets last week, and took a step back in time.
He ran to the outside, right at Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner, the No. 4 pick in the draft, who looked ready for an open-field tackle. Then, in a flash, Barkley stepped left and then cut right, and before the rookie could even blink, Barkley was gone.
It was a flash of what he has shown all summer to the Giants, but those are flashes the team has seen before. Now, in the final year of Barkley’s contract, with a new regime trying to rebuild the franchise, the Giants are desperately trying to determine the answer to two important questions about their star running back:
How long can this last? And most importantly: Is Barkley really back to his old self?
“Do I feel like I’m back?” Barkley said last week on the “Second Wind” podcast. “I feel like I’m better, to be completely honest.”
The 25-year-old certainly has his old swagger back after what really has been three injury-plagued seasons. He’s talking tough and insists he feels better than ever now that he’s two years removed from the torn ACL that limited him to just a game-and-a-half in 2020, and turned him into a shadow of himself (593 yards on 162 carries) in 2021.
And after too many years of listening to critics who say he wasn’t worthy of being the No. 2 overall pick in 2018, that he’ll never live up to the promise of his remarkable rookie season, or even that he’s an injury-plagued bust, Barkley sounds like he’s more motivated than ever. His focus, as he said back in April, is to “go crazy” and prove everyone wrong.
“Now I have the extra motivation to push me to go out there and … shut everyone up,” he said on that podcast. “Now it’s kill mindset. Now it’s like, ‘You know what, F— everybody.’
“I’m ready to go crazy, and I’m going to let the world feel me.”
The words are great, but even Barkley knows they’re meaningless until he shows he still has the talent that led former Giants GM Dave Gettleman to call him a “gold jacket” player who was “touched by the hand of God.” It sure looked true when he was a rookie and ran for 1,307 yards while catching 91 passes for 721 more.
But then came a badly sprained ankle in Year 2, a torn ACL in Year 3, and a Year 4 that featured another sprained ankle while he was still rehabbing his way back. Last year, coming off a summer in which he wasn’t able to really practice much, he wasn’t even the Giants’ best running back. Devontae Booker had the same 592 yards that Barkley did, but he did it on 17 fewer carries and out-gained him as a receiver, too.
All that, as Barkley said, has left him with something to prove — a lot to prove, really. He doesn’t just have to show that he still has the talent, he has to show that he can be durable, too. And he has to show it all to everyone. New York’s new GM Joe Schoen and coach Brian Daboll weren’t even sure what they had in Barkley when they took over the franchise during the winter. Schoen even said he was willing to listen to trade offers for Barkley during the offseason, though he later walked that back and never seriously entertained the possibility, according to a team source.
Now, with Barkley playing on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract ($7.2 million) and with the Giants in absolutely no hurry to talk to him about an extension, it looks like Daboll is ready to give Barkley every opportunity to prove he’s the Barkley of old. It has looked all summer like Barkley is going to be the centerpiece of the Giants’ redesigned offense. It’s also looked like he will be a huge part of their passing game, too.
But that’s based on practice. Barkley played only 13 snaps in preseason games — all on the opening drive of the first game back on Aug. 11. He ran four times for 13 yards and caught one pass for eight yards. It was a cameo that showed absolutely nothing, and then that was it.
The practice reviews, though, have all been positive so far.
“I think he’s looking good,” said quarterback Daniel Jones. “I think he’s played really well. I think you see his explosiveness, his ability to make plays in the run game, in the pass game. He’s dealt with a lot in the past couple of years as far as health, and it is fun to see him back practicing and playing like you’re used to seeing.”
The importance of that can’t be overstated. The Giants aren’t a Super Bowl contender, but they do have aspirations of being at least a competitive team again. They don’t have the weapons to do that in what could be an explosive NFC East if Barkley can’t rediscover his rookie form.
Eric Dickerson on Saquon Barkley
In 2019, as Saquon Barkley was entering his second season, Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson told Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe that Barkley was the NFL’s best back and that he “reminds me of Barry Sanders.”
The cascade effect of Barkley failing to do that would reach far beyond the wins and losses. This is a crucial year for Jones, who’s in the final year of his own contract, and the new Giants regime is trying to evaluate whether he can be their franchise quarterback. Take away his best weapon — by far — and it might be impossible for Jones to do enough to earn another year.
And then there’s Barkley’s own future. He is already the ninth-highest-paid running back in the NFL, and he will surely be looking to move up the charts for his next contract. By all accounts, he would love for that contract to come with the Giants, but it’s unclear if Schoen would want to devote that kind of salary cap space to a running back.
It would also be impossible for the Giants to justify a big investment in Barkley if this season is anything like the past three years, even if he is by far the biggest star — maybe the only star — the Giants currently have.
In other words, just about everything is at stake on the hope that Barkley can still be the superstar he always seemed destined to be.
But can he really be that again? There’s reason for hope, but there’s also plenty of reason for doubt. And there are plenty of doubters.
Clearly, Barkley has heard them all.
“I’m in a situation where, you know me, I always have the mindset of always being counted out,” Barkley said. “But now it’s actually here. It’s actually real. People are really counting me out. People are trying to write me off.”
Unfortunately for him, it’s pretty easy to do that based on the past three years. Now is his chance to write the new chapter he’s sure his story deserves.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and the Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that he spent 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. A Long Island, N.Y. native and graduate of Syracuse University, he can be found on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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