EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The hype for Saquon Barkley has quickly risen to Level 12. Owner John Mara compared it only to what he saw with the New York Giants in 1981, when they had drafted a linebacker named Lawrence Taylor. He's now in the Hall of Fame and considered by some the best defensive player of all time.
It is that kind of rare air that surrounds Barkley before he ever takes a snap in an NFL. It’s also what has Mara nervous as he repeatedly reminds people to hold off on the Hall of Fame induction for the time being.
Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, has looked every bit the star-in-the-making that everyone seems to expect so far in training camp. He consistently makes plays (especially in the passing game) even as all eyes have been on his every move. A flock of fans come daily to the swamps of New Jersey wearing their new No. 26 jerseys and T-shirts. Every cut and every catch is greeted with a rousing ovation.
It’s almost odd that the number of Barkley jerseys seem to rival those of Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. at the Quest Diagnostic Training Center, given that he has been on the team for only a relative minute. But he is the new hotshot Giant in town, and expectations are higher for a rookie than at any time since Manning arrived in 2004. Fans want to see what he can -- and will -- do to help inject life into a running game that has been nonexistent for years.
Several days into camp, Barkley has been effectively steady without much flash, aside from a shoe-tops grab on a screen pass Saturday before shaking veteran middle linebacker Alec Ogletree on a red zone pattern later in practice. He also juked Ogletree out of his cleats during a one-on-one drill Monday.
But Barkley is admittedly still a rookie, trying to heed the advice he received from All-Pro running back Todd Gurley when they were working out together in California earlier this month. Gurley and Barkley are both repped by Roc Nation.
“Be you. Stay who you are. Have fun. Play football,” Barkley said of the advice Gurley told him weeks before the start of camp. “It’s the same game. Obviously this is a job for people and they are a lot smarter in the NFL, but it’s the same game. Have fun with it. Just go out and ball.”
That’s exactly what Barkley is intent on doing. He’s following the same blueprint that made him a star at Penn State, which includes remaining modest and earning his keep. According to Giants tight end Evan Engram, who worked out with Barkley at times this summer, the rookie spends hours watching tape of the league's top running backs. He then absorbs everything he sees from Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Le'Veon Bell in hopes that he can take it to the field.
Barkley spent the spring splitting first-team snaps with veteran Jonathan Stewart. But Stewart always seemed to be first up with the starting offense during OTAs and minicamp.
That has since flipped at training camp this summer. Barkley has already assumed his spot as RB1. Even though they are still splitting first-team reps on most days, Barkley is generally first.
The rookie also constantly peppers Stewart and Manning with questions. It’s to the point that Barkley is cognizant of trying to avoid annoying the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.
He knows his place.
“No -- far from a veteran,” Barkley said. “Just excited, living the dream. I’m a New York Giant, playing football. I’ve been wanting to do this since I was a little kid, to play in the NFL. Just attacking every single day, trying to get better.”
The Giants have been careful to avoid feeding into the frenzy. Barkley receives no special treatment despite his draft status. Coach Pat Shurmur has noted on numerous occasions that he’s a rookie, just like the rest of his draft class. There will be a learning curve.
Like when Barkley fails to recognize some of the blitzes dialed up at training camp by defensive coordinator James Bettcher that he’s likely never seen before. Like when Ogletree or safety Landon Collins come darting through the A-gap and deliver thumps unlike anything he experienced at Penn State.
Nobody is going easy on Barkley just because he was the second-overall pick in April. In fact, defensive tackle Damon Harrison said in the spring (somewhat jokingly/maybe somewhat seriously) that he could not wait to “hit his ass.”
The Giants veterans have heard the hype and see the talent. It's still not getting him any special treatment on or off the field.
“I hold him accountable like everyone else in the room. You treat him the same,” running backs coach Craig Johnson said. “If he does a good job, I will hype him up. If he doesn’t, I’ll tell him let’s get to the details and that way, I think, any player would want to be coached that way. I think that most players want to get better. They want a coach to bring out the best in them. So I am going to continue to do that. He’s done it and he’ll come back and tell me I didn’t do so well there, I can do better, what do you think about that one?”
As the Giants' running game stumbles early in camp, it’s Barkley’s ability as a pass-catcher that has flashed. The play against Ogletree on Saturday was a thing of beauty. Barkley ran out of the backfield to his left, as if he were heading toward the sideline. He then stuck his foot in the ground and made a sharp cut toward the middle, leaving Ogletree in his dust. It was an easy pitch-and-catch with Manning for a touchdown on that play.
This is the kind of mismatch that surely has Shurmur drooling and in his office scribbling plays late at night trying to best utilize Barkley's skills. Barkley motioned out wide several times at practice on Saturday and Sunday, at one point even finding himself matched against outside linebacker Kareem Martin.
Martin is listed at 6-foot-6 and 263 pounds. He doesn’t stand much of a chance in open space against Barkley, who refined his route-running prior to camp with some workouts alongside Beckham, Sterling Shepard, Engram and even Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens.
“You can learn how they set up routes,” Barkley said of the experience. “Obviously, my route may not be 20 or 50 yards down the field. It may be just five yards from the line of scrimmage. The same way they lean, the head nods, how they stick their routes -- it’s something you can take in and elevate yourself as a running back and receiver.”
It seems to be showing on the field already. Barkley is being himself, just as Gurley suggested. And if the early part of training camp is any indication, that hype might be warranted.