EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It has been more than two weeks since Saquon Barkley returned to practice following a tweaked hamstring. He’s been running and cutting like, well, Saquon Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick with 4.4 speed and the moves to match, ever since.
There was a play at New York Giants practice last week where he zigged and zagged, stuck his foot in the ground and changed directions to maneuver past a defender without missing a beat. It seemed like good enough confirmation that there shouldn’t be any problems physically in his first career game Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Barkley declared himself ready to handle a full workload in his NFL debut. That should include plenty of touches, but it also won’t completely minimize running backs Wayne Gallman and Jonathan Stewart.
“You’ve heard me say this in the past, it takes a village with the running backs,” Giants coach Pat Shurmur said. “The running backs that are up are all going to get their touches, and regardless of Saquon, Wayne, Jonathan, whoever is up is going to get their touches.”
The Giants didn’t draft Barkley second overall with the intention of making it a split backfield. The heavy lifting is going to begin Sunday despite just six snaps in the preseason. They’re confident Barkley is healthy -- he's not even on this week's injury report -- and ready to withstand a full workload.
With Shurmur that might include almost 80 percent of the snaps for his rookie running back with somewhere around 25 touches. That’s what Dalvin Cook had in last year’s season opener with Shurmur as his offensive coordinator in Minnesota. It included 22 carries for 127 yards and three catches (on five targets) for 10 yards.
For Barkley, his pass catching is where he may do the biggest damage. There have been plays throughout the summer -- including the one that ended with a tweaked hamstring -- where he was lined up out wide and beat Pro Bowl cornerback Janoris Jenkins with a sharp route and sudden explosiveness.
“That’s what makes him special, the fact that he can be a receiver out of the backfield. It just makes him that three-down back, finding ways to get him the ball in space. That’s a matchup we like,” quarterback Eli Manning said. “If we get man-to-man, that’s a matchup we like in the mix. Getting him the ball and letting him be an athlete, get the ball to him in space where he can make guys miss and get some big gains for us. I think it will be helpful, if teams want to play zone and drop back, having the ability to throw checkdowns and let him make some plays that way.”
Barkley could be a popular target this season as Manning’s safety valve. That should be especially relevant this week, with Jacksonville’s dominant defensive line matched against the Giants’ new and still questionable offensive line.
This is among the reasons my bold prediction for the Giants this season was that Barkley would catch 80 passes. Manning threw an average of nine passes per game to his running backs last season. And that was to Orleans Darkwa, Paul Perkins, Shane Vereen and Gallman. None is Barkley, especially with Vereen nearing the end of his career.
“I don’t even think I caught that in college,” Barkley said.
He didn’t. Barkley caught 54 passes last year in 13 games. That’s an average of 4.2 per game. That would equate to 67 over a 16-game season.
But with the immobile Manning as his quarterback working behind a right side of the offensive line that struggles in pass protection, the expectation is that Barkley quickly will become a favorite target. Eighty might not be such a stretch after all given the circumstances.
It wouldn’t be a complete surprise. Barkley envisions having a significant role in the offense, beginning Week 1 against the Jaguars.
“I see it as a do-it-all back. A guy that can line up out wide, in the slot, coming out of the backfield, running the ball inside and outside the tackles,” Barkley said. “Got a little bit of it all.”
The Giants are going to use it.