EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley returned to practice Monday for the first time since tearing the ACL in his right knee early last season, and he expressed optimism afterward that he could be ready for Week 1.
Barkley said he sees it as a positive that he has more than a month to get ramped up for the season opener on Sept. 12.
"I guess you can say, with my mindset, I'm definitely hopeful," Barkley said. "It's definitely better being able to practice now than later on in camp."
Barkley was noncommittal about definitely being back for the opener despite everything trending in the right direction. This is the approach he and the team have strategically taken over the past few months.
Barkley participated in individual drills and teaching sessions without incident during Monday's practice. He ran routes for quarterback Daniel Jones and even took handoffs behind the first-team offensive line, albeit with no defense on the other side. He looked to be moving well.
It was a step in the right direction, and what they hope is a sign of things to come.
"As [the medical staff] keeps greenlighting Saquon to do more and more, we're going to let him do more and more," coach Joe Judge said.
Barkley said he felt good afterward, but often after ACL injuries, it's more about how he will feel later in the week. The Giants naturally will monitor him closely.
It's not unlike the approach they've taken from the start. The Giants have been adamant about taking it slow with Barkley. He started camp on the physically unable to perform list, where he worked on a side field with trainers. He had been running and cutting at full speed, and looked good in the process. Barkley had clearly been lobbying to get on the field early in training camp.
"Yeah, uh, rehab is definitely tough," Barkley said slowly and with a wide smile. "I think [director of rehabilitation/physical therapist] Leigh [Weiss] and them are probably kind of happy I'm out and practicing ...
"You know I'm a competitor. Especially it's different when you're over there and look and see a team competing, getting into fights and going at it and you can't be a part of it."
The fourth-year running back even took some ribbing from teammates upon his return to the practice field. They shook his hand to reintroduce themselves and some of the defensive players expressed their desire to get that first hit, especially considering the amount of trash Barkley talks at practice, even when he isn't participating.
But it will have to wait. Barkley has other barriers to cross before he's taking hits.
"I got to a point over there where, obviously what I was doing was very helpful, but the next phase for me was to get that [practice] part to get confidence," Barkley said. "It's different than running at a black garbage can to be able to make that cut simulating what you're going to do in a game or do in practice than actually having [defensive lineman] B.J. Hill shed a block or me reading [offensive tackle] Nate Solder's block. That is going to come with time."
The Giants plan to slowly ramp up Barkley over the next several weeks. He isn't going to be thrown straight into live drills, and he probably won't participate in upcoming joint practices with the Cleveland Browns or New England Patriots.
Judge didn't, however, rule out getting him into a preseason game later this summer. He said that "absolutely" was a possibility if the trainers deemed him ready.
"The thing is, before you get hit in the first [regular] game at full speed when the speed does elevate, we want to go out there and just get you used to the tempo of the game, the pace of the game, get you a catch, get you hit, get the feel of being tackled. That's natural preparation," Judge said.
"You don't want to put someone in a situation where they're just getting the gauntlet out there getting hit, but that's part of preparation, your body understanding and feeling the flow of how to get hit, how to fall, how to recover after that. So, am I looking to put Saquon into something that's not going to be in his best interest? Absolutely not, but at some point the doctors say 'He's ready to play,' and if we have the opportunity to get him in at a certain point, we will. But I'm not going to press that timetable."
Barkley hasn't played much in the preseason the first three years of his career. He played in one game during the 2019 season. He won't play Saturday night against the New York Jets.
But Judge might have a different approach than the previous Giants coaches. Barkley seems open-minded.
"One thing for me, I'm all for whatever is going to help the team win," he said. "If that is the mindset that Coach Judge and Leigh and the training staff believe in, they want to see me get live reps in a preseason game, if they feel that is what I need to do to get myself back for whenever I'm able to come back for my team, then I'm willing to do that."
Barkley, 24, was the No. 2 overall pick out of Penn State in the 2018 NFL draft. After a record-breaking rookie season in which he compiled 2,028 total yards, the past two years have been a struggle because of injuries. Barkley has played in 15 of the Giants' past 32 games.
He had 34 rushing yards on 19 attempts before the knee injury last year.