The Saquon smile is back.
The still-young Saquon Barkley looks healthy, sounds happy and says he feels so much better now than he did one year ago. The running back admits he is energized to fill a central role in the new offensive system, a system that should — repeat, should — reinvent Saquon Barkley and turn him once again the multifaceted weapon the Giants and their fans saw in 2018, but have not seen since.
No downcast stars or glazed eyes. Not on this day. Not on Wednesday, after the Giants completed their second practice of their mandatory minicamp. The sun was shining, and Barkley was glowing.
“I’m very excited,” Barkley said. “I think this offense is going to put playmakers in position to make plays. Whether it’s post-snap, pre-snap, giving us looks and letting our talent go to work.
“I feel like we have something special here.”
Barkley has said this before. The past two years have not been kind to him, and he could not rise above all the physical adversity, mental anguish and lack of any team success. He bowed to the demands of human nature, at times appearing sullen or beaten down or just plain tired of it all.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s tough,” said safety Julian Love, Barkley’s teammate the past three years. “That’s a guy who is like the most competitive person I’ve ever been around, and for him to kind of be banged up here or there, it’s tough. It’s tough on him, it’s tough on us.
“As a friend, I’m just excited for him to see what he can do.”
What Barkley can do, if his knee and ankle issues of the past are indeed behind him, is pretty much everything for the new offense, designed by head coach Brian Daboll and orchestrated by coordinator Mike Kafka.
One had to be constantly on alert for where No. 26 in blue was on every play during the organized team activity practices, and that creativity also has been on display during minicamp. Barkley lines up in the backfield, of course. But he has also been seen as a slot receiver and also further out as an outside receiver. There are plays on which he starts in one spot and motions clear across the formation. Now you see him here, now you don’t see him there.
“I feel like whenever I can get the ball in space, I feel like that’s where I’m at my best,” Barkley said.
The new game coming to NFL defenses assigned to stopping the Giants this season: Where’s Saquon?
“I think it’s helpful, not only for myself, but to open up other things for the offense,” he said. “I haven’t really moved like this since college, so kind of went back and watched a little bit of my college stuff to see stuff that I was able to do there and transition, bringing it here.”
What he saw in those Penn State highlights was a different version of himself.
“I would say the difference was I was a way more confident player in college and early in my career than I was prior to the last year and then last year,” Barkley said. “Now I’m starting to get that back, starting to get that swagger back.”
Barkley’s pass-catching prowess was a huge part of his NFL initiation, when he won the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award following the 2018 season. In addition to his 1,307 rushing yards, perhaps even more impressive were his 91 receptions for 721 yards and four receiving touchdowns. That was Barkley at his most versatile and effective. Injuries and bad offensive systems conspired to be his undoing.
The new offensive approach should unlock all there is inside the Barkley tank. Daboll wants to spread the field and create mismatches with movement and by putting his personnel in advantageous spots. Daboll’s former team, the Bills, did not throw the ball a whole lot to their running backs — Devin Singletary led the way out of the backfield in 2021 with just 40 receptions — but Daniel Jones will have Barkley to target, and the ball figures to find him.
“I think each year each team is a little bit different, each player is unique,” Daboll said. “I think Saquon is a unique guy.
“He’s got good hands, he’s a good route-runner, a good runner. Try to use him the best way we can.”
The Giants picked up Barkley’s fifth-year option and he will play this season for $7.2 million. What happens after that will depend on several factors. If Barkley, 25, stays healthy — something he has not done in any of the past three seasons — the Giants would like to have evidence to support keeping him around.