Expect Saquon Barkley to carry heavy workload as Giants rookie

NEW YORK -- On one side is the most electric wide receiver in football, with Odell Beckham Jr. demanding double coverage. In the slot is the emerging Sterling Shepard. Down the middle of the field, the New York Giants have tight end Evan Engram catching touchdown passes and making big plays with his blazing speed. There is -- and was -- a good set of weapons around quarterback Eli Manning.

The Giants have much the same vision as last year, with a two-time Super Bowl champion QB throwing passes to an enticing group of weapons. Only now they’re adding Saquon Barkley to the mix, a running back who has the power to run between the numbers, if necessary, and the balance and speed to break long runs to the outside while also being a dangerous threat in the passing game. It’s a promising group that almost certainly should score more points than it did last year during a 3-13 season.

“It has a lot of potential,” Engram said Tuesday from the BTIG Charity Day.

There are no excuses left for Manning and this bunch, which finished 31st in points scored last season without Beckham for most of the year. The Giants have a new coach, a fresh scheme, an allegedly improved offensive line and Barkley, the uber-talented No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft.

Barkley is going to be a major piece for this offense from the start. Look no further than the way Giants coach Pat Shurmur used rookie running back Dalvin Cook last season -- in the 3½ games before he tore his ACL -- when Shurmur was the offensive coordinator in Minnesota.

Cook played 75 percent of the offensive snaps, with much of his time on the sideline coming in third-and-long situations. He started all four games and handled 21 of 25 red zone snaps before his knee refused to cooperate on a midfield cut. The former Florida State star received eight of the team's nine red zone carries before the injury.

Cook was the 41st overall pick, ninth in the second round. Barkley was second overall in the entire draft.

If Cook's usage under Shurmur is any indication, Barkley is going to handle a hefty workload immediately.

“The running back is an easy guy to fit in an offense,” Shurmur said after the draft. “You have to turn around and hand it to him. It doesn’t take a genius to do that. Then, a lot of times when you try and throw the ball downfield and they cover them all, you can dump him off the ball, or you can feature him in the pass game. I have seen the effects of a really, really good running back not only on the offense, but on the team.

“You have to run the football not just for your offense, but for your team. I have seen the effect that a great running back can have on teams. I was excited about the fact that he was the best player in the draft and I was excited about the fact that we were able to draft him.”

The Giants weren’t sure a month ago what shape their running game would take. That depended on the personnel in their backfield.

With Barkley in the mix, it should include more zone concepts after years of trying to force-feed a power attack with personnel who didn’t match. The Vikings ran a ton of outside zone with Cook before transitioning to more of a power attack after he was injured.

Barkley had success in zone and power concepts at Penn State. He averaged 4.9 yards per attempt on inside zone carries, per Pro Football Focus. He generated 6.6 yards per attempt on power concepts. This gives the Giants options.

Cook wasn’t even the same caliber prospect as Barkley last year and Shurmur immediately put him in a featured role with the Vikings. This alone should indicate that Barkley is being prepared for a massive role in the Giants' offense, beginning Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

And it’s not as if Shurmur didn’t have other options in Minnesota. He had Jerick McKinnon, who thrived after Cook was injured and earned a four-year contract with the San Francisco 49ers that could be worth up to $36.9 million. The Vikings also had Latavius Murray, who just two years earlier was a Pro Bowl back with the Oakland Raiders.

The Giants have a comparable backfield. They have a young back in Wayne Gallman who flashed some ability as a rookie. They also signed veteran power back Jonathan Stewart. The former Panther signed a two-year deal worth $6.9 million this offseason.

Based on Shurmur’s history, that shouldn’t guarantee Stewart a significant role or playing time. Murray signed a three-year, $15 million deal last offseason and was an afterthought after Cook entered the picture. Murray had 16 touches in the first four weeks.

The Vikings used Cook early and often, and in almost every role imaginable. He played the first nine snaps against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3 and touched the ball on eight of those nine plays. This wasn’t something that went unnoticed when Manning was studying the Vikings’ season from last year and imagining Barkley’s role in the future.

“I think they’ll throw him right in there and see what he can handle,” Manning said.

Barkley is likely to be used in every role imaginable, especially with his pass-catching ability. He caught 54 passes last year for Penn State. Cook lined up wide as a receiver eight times in fewer than four full games last season. He even had a couple snaps alongside McKinnon.

This is what the expectation should be for Barkley. He’ll receive a heavy dose of work with Gallman and his extra year of experience likely playing the third-and-long role. Stewart should serve as insurance.

At least that is what last year’s look at Shurmur and the Vikings would suggest.