EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — For only a moment, during a joint practice with the Jets at the tip of August, Giants running back Saquon Barkley reversed time.
In 11-on-11 drills, he collected a handoff, in the reduction of from the road of scrimmage and swiftly evaded a defender for a modest gain. The play itself was flashy but, more vital for Barkley, it was uneventful.
His right knee, surgically repaired in 2020, didn’t buckle. His ankles, which troubled him in 2019 and again last season, didn’t roll. As an alternative, Barkley displayed long-forgotten speed and ably modified direction in ways in which were paying homage to his 2018 season, when he rushed for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns and created highlights by often not surrendering on first contact.
Those bulldozing runs won him a Rookie of the 12 months Award and turned him into an endorsement magnet. But injuries in each of the past three seasons have dampened expectations that Barkley, drafted No. 2 overall in 2018 over the franchise quarterbacks Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, would successfully carry the Giants into their post-Eli Manning future.
Under two head coaches since 2018, the Giants’ offense has ranked no higher than sixteenth in scoring and the team has amassed a 19-46 record.
Barkley, 25, enters the last season of his rookie contract as one among the last remnants from bygone teams and leadership groups, at a time when N.F.L. franchises have hesitated to offer running backs massive second deals. The expiring contracts of Barkley, quarterback Daniel Jones and other veterans set to come back off the books after the 2022 season could give Joe Schoen, the first-year general manager, $54.4 million in projected cap space to rebuild.
Barkley is hoping to prove to the Giants’ latest decision makers — or potential suitors across the league — to stake him again.
“It’s a turning point for my legacy,” Barkley said in an August interview on the Giants’ facility. “It is a 12 months I can turn it around. That’s my focus, to come back out here, turn that around and put all of the bad luck behind me.”
The bad luck to which he referred: Barkley missed 21 games during the last three seasons, including 4 games last 12 months due to an ankle injury. He played in only five quarters in 2020 after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in only the Giants’ second game of the season.
Barkley said the setbacks diminished his confidence, a fact he said was particularly noticeable when he watched film of those second- and third-year games when he didn’t shake off defenders or perform cutbacks as he did that first N.F.L. season and in college at Penn State.
“You may take a look at yourself within the mirror, and you may tell yourself that, ‘I’m back,’ but your body can go on the market and react a special way,” he said.
Barkley played the ultimate eight games last season, and said he felt refreshed heading into the off-season, his first since after his rookie season wherein he didn’t need to rehabilitate an injury. However the team hired Schoen and Coach Brian Daboll, each former Buffalo Bills assistants, in January and by the scouting mix in March, Schoen said he was “open to anything” when asked if he would trade Barkley.
Weeks later, he clarified that he had accepted other teams’ inquiries, as he would for any player, but was not actively shopping Barkley. Schoen said he personally called him to guarantee him of his roster spot and has since sought to encourage Barkley, who has delivered a powerful training camp and preseason.
“He went No. 2 within the draft for a reason,” Schoen said in an interview on Aug. 26. “He’s an excellent talented player and an amazing person and has been an amazing leader to this point. He’s obviously one among the pieces you’re excited to work with once we came.”
Each Daboll and Schoen deflected when asked in the event that they would commit to him long-term, saying the subject was premature. If the Giants don’t extend Barkley’s contract after the season, he would enter the open market as a free agent.
Barkley’s crossroads comes as star running backs have turn out to be devalued across the N.F.L. Only 4 running backs have been drafted in the primary round since 2019, and rushers just like the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey and the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliot dipped in production and got injured after signing lucrative long-term contracts. Teams as a substitute have increasingly relied on a cadre of rushers that typically includes younger players drafted in later rounds, fairly than a single featured back.
Barkley said he understands that trend, but disagrees with it.
“Every position within the N.F.L. is priceless — you would like someone good at every position,” Barkley said.
He added, “I can see why people can take a look at it that way and see where the sport is today, but I could make the identical argument for another players which might be running backs who’re the center and soul of their teams.”
Mike Tannenbaum, a former Jets general manager and an ESPN analyst, said it was not clear how the Giants would handle a possible extension if Barkley played well, as expected.
“He’s a captivating discussion because he’s a dynamic difference-maker and people players are really hard to search out,” Tannenbaum said. “But how much do you pay him? What’s the structure of the contract? What’s the guarantees? That’s difficult to find out due to his history.
Barkley said “he doesn’t feel pressure” for this 12 months, despite recognizing his circumstances, and is optimistic that he’ll return to his rookie form.
“I just need to go on the market and play the sport that I like,” Barkley said. “And if it don’t go that way, then, hey, so be it, it just wasn’t within the cards for me to be like that. I’m coming at a spot with no fear and just going on the market and balling.”