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
2017 YEAR IN REVIEW: The New York Giants have not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ahmad Bradshaw’s final season with the team in 2012. The Giants’ leading rushers since that time have been Andre Brown, Andre Williams, Rashad Jennings (twice), and Orleans Darkwa. More telling are the overall team rushing stats with the Giants finishing 29th, 23rd, 18th, 29th, and 26th in the NFL from 2013 to 2017. Last season was a continuation of this mediocrity with the Giants averaging 96.8 yards per game and scoring only six rushing touchdowns. There were four games where the Giants didn’t even rush for 50 yards and nine games where the team didn’t reach 100 yards rushing. The overall numbers are a bit inflated too by the meaningless season-finale against the Washington Redskins where the Giants rushed for 260 yards.
The Giants’ top four rushers in 2017 were Orleans Darkwa (751 yards, 5 touchdowns), Wayne Gallman (476 yards), Shane Vereen (164 yards), and Paul Perkins (90 yards). The Giants’ sixth rushing touchdown came from Eli Manning. The receiving yards for the backs were from Vereen (253 yards), Gallman (193 yards, 1 touchdown), Darkwa (116 yards), and Perkins (46 yards). Darkwa and Gallman actually were respectable, averaging 4.4 and 4.3 yards per carry respectively. But on a team that finished 21st in overall offensive yardage, 26th in rushing yardage, and 31st in scoring, nothing on offense ever felt like a “strength,” including the running attack.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants decided not to re-sign Orleans Darkwa (who had a plate removed from his leg in May) and Shane Vereen (who also still remains unemployed). Paul Perkins tore his pectoral muscle in the offseason, was waived/injured, and placed on Injured Reserve. Thus the only returning halfback appears to be Wayne Gallman unless the Giants are keeping an eye on Darkwa’s health status.
The Giants signed street free Jalen Williams in January, veteran free agent Jonathan Stewart in March after his was cut by the Panthers, and rookie free agent Robert Martin in May. But the biggest offseason move the team made was drafting Saquon Barkley with the #2 pick in the entire 2018 NFL Draft. The Giants have only drafted two running backs in their entire history this high: Tucker Frederickson #1 overall in 1965 and Skippy Minisi with the #2 pick in 1948.
Shane Smith is the only returning fullback, though tight end Rhett Ellison can play the position in a pinch. The Giants also added a couple of H-Back types who can play fullback in ex-Viking Kyle Carter and rookie free agent Garrett Dickerson.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: With General Manager Dave Gettleman throwing around phrases like “gold jacket” and “touched by the hand of God,” needless to say, the expectation level for Barkley has been set incredibly (perhaps unrealistically) high. And while the Giants have had some very good running backs in their history, including Frank Gifford, Tiki Barber, Tuffy Leemans, Rodney Hampton, Joe Morris, Brandon Jacobs, and Ahmad Bradshaw, given the team’s flagship franchise status, one would have to say that the list of top-notch running backs in team history is relatively short and a bit underwhelming. A Giants’ running back has only led the NFL in rushing four times, and that came in 1936, 1943, 1944, and 1951.
For the Giants to draft a running back with the #2 pick, and in the process pass over a number of potential “franchise” quarterbacks, Barkley needs to be damn good. No strike that. He needs to be great. It would be a disappointment if Barkley does not immediately become one of the NFL’s best backs and eventually challenge Tiki Barber’s 10,499 career rushing yards and Barber’s 5,183 career receiving yards.
The first step in doing that is staying healthy. Running backs get hit more than any other player in the NFL. Barkley is built like a tank, but in order to do the things he needs to do, he must stay on the field. Step two is keeping his head on straight and not letting the immense pressure get to him. That’s easier said than done. All eyes will be on Barkley. Every time he touches the ball, many will expect something special. Barkley readily admits he often tried to do too much on a given play during his career at Penn State. Take what the defense gives you. The big plays will come. In the meantime, eschew the bright lights of the big city and focus on football.
The good news is this: Barkley appears to be the real deal. The early returns from the OTAs and mini-camp is he is practically uncoverable by linebackers and even some safeties. At the very least, Barkley should be a major asset in the passing game, provided he can develop a rapport with Eli Manning, a quarterback not known for his screen and swing passes. What will be interesting to see is how effective he will be running the ball. The Giants really haven’t been a top-notch running team since 2008, when the team led the NFL in rushing. Can the Giants move out of the bottom tier into the upper tier of rushing in just one year? The expectation is that Barkley will finally force teams to respect the Giants’ running game, and thus open things up for Manning, Odell Beckham, Evan Engram, and Sterling Shepard in the passing game. In the last three seasons, the Giants have scored a total of 17 rushing touchdowns, or an average of less than six per season. That needs to change too.
Finally, the temptation will be to keep Barkley on the field on every play. The Giants must constantly evaluate his wear-and-tear. They want him to last more than five years in this League.
ON THE BUBBLE: The key questions here are how many halfbacks will the Giants keep? And is there a roll for a fullback in Pat Shurmur’s offense? With Barkley likely to receive the overwhelming bulk of the playing time, the Giants may decide to go light at halfback and go with Barkley, Jonathan Stewart (who they paid big money to be a mentor), and Wayne Gallman. The players clearly on the bubble include Jalen Simmons and Robert Martin. It’s anyone’s guess at this stage if Shurmur is leaning towards a roster spot for a fullback like Shane Smith or Kyle Carter.
FROM THE COACHES AND PLAYERS: Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher on Saquon Barkley: “He’s a special player. Special player. Guy that, any single down, is going to create a lot of matchup nightmares for coordinators in this league and players in this league.”
Linebacker Alec Ogletree on Saquon Barkley: “A guy that comes to work the right way. He’s a true professional, even at a young age. He’s always asking questions and you can just tell he loves football and loves to learn and do the right thing.”
Tight End Rhett Ellison on Saquon Barkley: “He’s a humble guy. He just comes in and he works. Anytime you have a rookie, especially a first round pick like that, and they come in just ready to work with their head down, that’s the best you can ask for. Obviously, it’s hard to tell when you’re playing in underwear to see the physicality of the game. But I’d say his work ethic and just his humility is pretty cool.”
Saquon Barkley on what it takes to be a good running back: “I think it is instinct. Actually breaking down film and watching the David Johnson’s and Le’Veon Bell’s, instinct is one thing, but also what (Jonathan Stewart) has been teaching me, it is how to set up your blocks. For me, I did it so natural in college that I didn’t even notice I was doing it. Now, understanding and seeing the play before it develops and seeing the linebacker overflowing, that is how you set up cutback lanes. A guy who does it the best is Le’Veon Bell. I was watching him this morning and how he was picking up blocks. I think you have to be versatile as a running back. Catch the ball in the backfield and be able to block. Be able to run in between tackles and outside of tackles. If you really think if the three backs, the top five backs, that is what they are able to do. They block, catch the ball in the backfield and are able to run the ball. Just the way they set up their blocks. That is what it takes to be a top back in the NFL. ”
PREDICTIONS: I can’t imagine the amount of pressure that is on the shoulders of Saquon Barkley. There are fans who didn’t want him who will mock him every time he doesn’t break off a big play. Gettleman has Hall of Fame expectations. But there is an aura about this kid. In the age of “look at me,” Barkley seems like an old-school throwback who knows he is good but is more interested in the overall success of the team. Veterans have been impressed with his humility, work ethic, intelligence, and skillset. I think there will be grumblings early from fans, especially since the NFL schedule makers have the Giants opening with the very tough Jacksonville Jaguars defense. But I look for Saquon to get better and better as the season progresses, with his earliest impact coming in the passing game as the new offensive line will take some time to build cohesion.
Overall, it’s extremely difficult to see an offense with Odell Beckham, Evan Engram, and Saquon Barkley not being explosive. As long as Eli Manning has some gas left in the tank and the offensive line can become somewhat respectable, then this should be a very fun offense to watch.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Saquon Barkley, Jonathan Stewart, and Wayne Gallman at halfback. Given the fact that the Giants keep adding H-Back types, I think it is safe to say they may keep one as a fullback candidate. I have no idea who that will be however.