Last season didn’t quite produce the results the New York Giants were looking for. Still, one surprising development to come from Joe Judge’s inaugural campaign was the team managed to survive the season-ending loss of running back Saquon Barkley.
Sort of. With all due respect to the players the Giants had on their roster last year at the running back spot, no one came close to matching what a healthy Barkley can do in an offense.
But in looking ahead to this year, the Giants running back room is at an interesting crossroads. Barkley is coming back from a torn ACL, an injury from which he’s expected to make a full recovery. But it remains to be seen as to what kind of effect it’s left on his explosiveness and speed.
The team did add Devontae Booker and rookie Gary Brightwell. But what could end up being very interesting to see if how much, if any, they plan on incorporating first-round pick Kadarius Toney, who, in addition to playing receiver in college, also ran the ball into certain rushing packages.
Running Backs: Saquon Barkley, Devonta Booker, Gary Brightwell, Taquan Mizzell, Jordan Chunn, Sandro Platzgummer*, Fullback Eli Penny, Fullback Cullen Gillaspia
Question No. 1: Can Saquon be Saquon again?
The good news is that there is growing optimism about Barkley’s recovery. That said, there is no timetable for when Barkley will get the green light to return in full as he pulls further and further away from his October 30 surgery date last year.
If you want to call it that, the bad news is that the Giants aren’t quite sure when they can expect to give Barkley the green light to do everything again. Until they can green-light him, it’s impossible to know if Barkley has lost any explosiveness or quickness due to his injury.
During an interview Monday with Carton and Roberts on WFAN, head coach Joe Judge said, “When (the team’s medical staff) say he's ready to go? That's when we'll put him on the field. But I want to make sure he's ready to go, 100 percent, before we throw him out there.
"I couldn't tell you a timetable on that because we don't really have a hard answer ourselves. But I'd say that's not out of the ordinary, for any player who's coming off an injury at different levels of the rehab to have restrictions one way or another throughout training camp.”
Being ready to go and being back to his pre-injury self are two very different things. That's why it will be of great interest as far as how the Giants plan to handle his early-season reps.
Barkley logged his highest number of reps on offense as a rookie in 2018 (852), which amounts to 86.5% of the total offensive snaps. In 2019, he missed a few games with a high ankle sprain and only saw 729 snaps (out of 1,012 on offense). And then we all know what happened in 2020 when he suffered his season-ending injury at the top of the second quarter of the team’s Week 2 game vs. the Bears.
To expect Barkley to hit the ground running and take a full workload, at least in the beginning, is probably not realistic. So what is realistic? Figure the Giants will want to get him on the field for first and second downs and maybe leave the third-down pass pro duties to fellow veteran Devontae Booker, whom the team signed as a free agent to replace Wayne Gallman.
The other question we’ve been waiting to see now ever since the Giants drafted Barkley with the second overall pick in 2018 is whether the coaching staff can figure out how to deploy and optimize his skill set creatively.
Barkley has been involved in 882 passing snaps in three seasons but has only been targeted 192 times with 149 receptions for 1,219 yards and six touchdowns.
To be fair, we didn’t get to see the full scope of how offensive coordinator Jason Garrett planned to deploy Barkley last year, thanks to the injury. Indeed, one can hope that once he’s ready to run routes, he’ll see a lot more time in the slot and split out wide than he has thus far in his career (2.4% and 6.2%, respectively).
Again, it remains to be seen how much the Giants will ask him to do once he gets the green light—it’s doubtful they’ll heap everything on him at once—but one thing we hope to see more of is Barkley in play-action.
Question No. 2: Do the Giants have enough depth at the position?
The Giants signed veteran Devontae Booker for depth during free-agency, whom general manager Dave Gettleman said is an every-down back. Booker presumably will fill the third-down role previously held by Dion Lewis, who wasn’t retained. But behind Booker, the depth is very young and mostly inexperienced.
The Giants did add Arizona running back Gary Brightwell in the sixth round, but Brightwell, who needs to improve as a pass receiver (he had five drops last year), may end up making more of an impact on special teams as a rookie than he will on defense.
If the Giants are thinking of a “change of pace” back behind Barkley, one name to watch could be receiver Kadarius Toney, the team’s first-round pick.
Toney will get more than his fair share of snaps as a receiver, but don’t rule out the Giants taking advantage of his ability as a runner.
As for the rest of the depth, the fullback battle will be one to watch this summer after the Giants added Cullen Gillaspia to the roster (a guy who has made his living on special teams) to challenge incumbent Eli Penny (another guy who has made his living on special teams).