With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com (BBI) breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Running Backs
2018 YEAR IN REVIEW: The great debate during the 2018 offseason was about whether the New York Giants should draft a quarterback with the #2 overall pick or Saquon Barkley. General Manager Dave Gettleman chose the less popular option and selected Barkley. While the final determination of whether this was the right move or not cannot be determined for some time, Barkley became one of the NFL’s very best players in just his rookie season. Despite not carrying the ball more than 18 times per game in the first half of the season and running behind a subpar offensive line, Barkley rushed for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 91 passes for 721 yards and four touchdowns. Overall, Barkley led the NFL with 2,028 yards from scrimmage and led the NFL with seven 40+ yard runs and six 50+ yard runs. And he didn’t fumble once. Barkley was voted to the Pro Bowl and named “Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year”, “FedEx Ground NFL Player of the Year”, “Pro Football Writers of America Offensive Rookie of the Year”, and “Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year.”
It was expected that ex-Panther Jonathan Stewart would be a significant contributor, but he only played in three games with six carries before ending up on Injured Reserve with a foot injury. Wayne Gallman became the team’s #2 running back, yet he only had 51 carries and 14 receptions on the year. The only other back to touch the football was fullback Elijhaa Penny, who carried the football only seven times and caught only eight passes. Third-year player Paul Perkins missed the entire season with a torn pectoral muscle. In a nutshell, it was virtually a one-man show with Barkley.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants chose not to bring back Jonathan Stewart and he retired from the NFL. The team signed Rod Smith from the Cowboys in free agency and signed undrafted rookie free agent Jonathan Hilliman after the draft.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Just how good can Saquon Barkley become? Will he let early success go to his head and fade? Or will he stay grounded and humble and seek to elevate his entire team? Jeremy Shockey and Odell Beckham were two of the most impressive rookies the Giants have ever had, but their careers with the team ended with a whimper. Aside from staying healthy, the challenge for Barkley is to prove to be a difference-maker for a team that has not won a playoff game in seven seasons. A good omen is that despite a questionable supporting cast, the more Barkley touched the football in 2018, the better the team performed (four of the team’s five wins came during the second-half of the season). Barkley is a legitimate League MVP candidate. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Barkley could rush for over 2,000 yards in one season.
Oddly, the Giants basically only carried two halfbacks on the roster last year. And also oddly, the second back (Wayne Gallman) barely touched the ball. Yet, Barkley only carried the ball 16.3 times per game (catching the ball 5.7 times per game). One would assume Pat Shurmur would like to see more touches for the running back unit as a whole. But does that mean more touches for Barkley? Or does the team play it safe and try to spread out the workload to the #2 and #3 halfbacks? Will there be a #3 halfback this year? Wayne Gallman has the inside track on the #2 job, but he has to control his fumbling (five in limited carries in 2017 and 2018).
ON THE BUBBLE: No one is really safe other than Barkley. If the Giants keep a fullback on the roster, Elijhaa Penny probably makes it unless the Giants see someone better on the waiver wire. The other four backs – Wayne Gallman, Paul Perkins, Rod Smith, and Jonathan Hillman – are fighting for one or two spots. (And again, never rule out the waiver wire).
FROM THE COACHES: Head Coach Pat Shurmur on Paul Perkins: “I think he is doing a good job. He is just getting back into it. There are a lot of running backs, so he is sharing reps, but the things that he has done out there, it looks like he has good body control and he handles the ball well. I have been pleased with his route running and the few carries he has had; it appears he has good vision.”
Shurmur on Rod Smith: “I think he is a pro. He came in and he has learned our offense pretty quickly. There is less and less mistakes in each practice setting. He does a good job with the ball in his hands. He is a big presence and we all know a lot of what he does is on special teams.”
Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula on Saquon Barkley’s snap count: “I think Coach Johnson does a really good of keeping those guys fresh throughout the game. Selfishly as a coordinator and probably all the Giants fans, you want him in there every single play because you don’t ever want him to miss out on an opportunity. I think there is a happy medium to make sure he’s fresh throughout and don’t just kill him. We’ve got to keep that in mind as we put together our game plans.”
Shula on Paul Perkins: “I remember him coming out of college and I really liked him coming out of college. Last year obviously he got hurt, he spent the whole year on IR. Now he’s getting a lot of reps. He’s a guy that can do a lot of things, he can pass protect, he can run the football obviously, he’s pretty good out of the backfield. We want to have him continue getting better at all those things. You guys saw last year we don’t dress a lot of backs so the guys that are dressing have to be able to do all those things. We want them to be able to be productive on first and second down but also on third down and that would involve pass protection and catching the football.”
Running Backs Coach Craig Johnson on Wayne Gallman: “I thought he was playing at a real high level in December… He gave us a lot of explosiveness.”
Johnson on Paul Perkins: “He’s back to the Perkins I saw when he first got here.”
PREDICTIONS: Stating the obvious, this is Saquon Barkley’s team now. He’s a truly special talent. The Giants must keep him healthy and prevent too much wear-and-tear. Thus, I think even his touches in training camp will be limited and I don’t expect to see much of him in the preseason. If he stays healthy, I do expect him to challenge Tiki Barber’s franchise-record, single-season total of 1,860 yards set in 2005. He should also have over 100 receptions. And while a running back can have more of an impact on the win-loss record than a wide receiver, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders had great individual seasons on terrible teams. In other words, Barkley can elevate his team’s play, but he will need help.
I can’t see the Giants carrying more than four backs. One will be Barkley. According to reports, the quarterbacks threw a lot to fullback Elijhaa Penny during Spring workouts. A decent blocker, Penny will likely make the team unless someone more intriguing becomes available on the waiver wire. So how many other halfbacks do the Giants carry (one or two) and who? Paul Perkins finished his rookie season strong and actually started the last playoff game the Giants played in. But he regressed terribly his sophomore season. Perkins will need to rebound in order to make it. Gallman flashes as a runner and receiver, but he must protect the ball better or he could be vulnerable. Gallman and Perkins seem to be directly competing with each other for one spot. Rod Smith’s best chance is if the coaches want to keep a short yardage back to reduce wear-and-tear on Barkley. His special team ability also helps. Jonathan Hilliman is a powerful runner who appears to be directly competing with Smith in terms of the style he brings to the table.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Saquon Barkley, Elijhaa Penny, Wayne Gallman, and Rod Smith