Saquon Barkley, Giants' draft class give fans reason for optimism

Saquon Barkley set an NFL record for rookie running backs with 91 receptions. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

Much went wrong for the New York Giants during the 2018 season. Their 5-11 record was no accident. They had a lot of problems, none of which included the production from their rookie class.

The 2018 draft and the free-agency period that followed produced some promising players, beginning with running back Saquon Barkley. The Giants’ draft from top to bottom -- based strictly on the players' talent and performance -- looks really good at this point.

Grade: Near perfection

Best rookie: RB Saquon Barkley. This is a no-brainer. He stepped onto the field and immediately became one of the NFL’s best running backs. There were high expectations for Barkley as the No. 2 overall pick. He exceeded them. He led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (2,028), was second with 1,307 rushing yards, set a rookie record with 91 receptions and didn’t have a single fumble. He played in all 16 games and did everything at a high level. No wonder tight end Evan Engram believes Barkley is destined to be one of the “greatest ever” running backs when all is said and done. In a normal season, defensive lineman B.J. Hill (5.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter (4.0 sacks) might've been in consideration for best rookie. Just not this year.

Most improved rookie: G Will Hernandez. He was a second-round pick out of UTEP who immediately stepped into the starting lineup. He started slowly -- much like most of the Giants’ offensive line -- at times struggling to recognize stunts, twists and blitzes while working with new left tackle Nate Solder. Mental mistakes were Hernandez's Achilles' heel. But that all seemed to disappear as the season progressed and the line stabilized. Hernandez played especially well in the second half of the season and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 21st-ranked guard, one spot behind Jacksonville’s Andrew Norwell, whom the Giants tried to sign last offseason. Hernandez’s growth was encouraging.

Jury is still out on ...: QB Kyle Lauletta. He was a fourth-round rookie from a Football Subdivision school, Richmond. Lauletta spent this season buried on the depth chart and appeared in just one game, a blowout victory over the Washington Redskins. He went 0-for-5 passing with an interception in his only action. His performance prompted coach Pat Shurmur to say afterward: “Those of you that were interested in seeing him, hopefully you got a chance to see what you were looking for.” Ouch! Lauletta was also arrested in late October for a driving incident that angered Giants brass, who believe he has a long way to go on and off the field before he's ready to play in the NFL. The next few years will be big for Lauletta. It often takes time for quarterbacks to adjust to this level. But his rookie season left some doubts.

Undrafted rookie evaluation: The Giants started three undrafted rookies (CB Grant Haley, LB Tae Davis and S Sean Chandler) on defense this season. They seemed to find a punt returner in Quadree Henderson before he was injured. WR/KR Jawill Davis also contributed. Haley seems to have the brightest future of this group based on his performance as the team’s slot cornerback for most of the season. His 70.5 PFF coverage grade was the highest among Giants cornerbacks, better even than that of Janoris Jenkins. Overall, this was a solid group of undrafted rookies.