EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Saquon Barkley’s presence, health and production are all vital to the New York Giants. Except during special teams periods on the training camp practice field.
So, during those regular sessions, which ran 15 minutes daily, Barkley used the time this summer at the team’s Quest Diagnostics Training Center to get better.
He worked with Laura Young, the Giants director of coaching operations, and former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk, who joined the Giants in camp as a Bill Walsh minority coaching intern.
“We’d do a little bit of everything,” said Young, who is a permanent member of Brian Daboll’s coaching staff. “Kevin worked a lot on pass-protection technique, body placement, particularly of the hips and hands.”
In Faulk, Barkley was tutored by – and learned from – a former player renowned for his pass protection. (Just ask Tom Brady.)
Barkley knows his pass protection can improve, hence the focus on it. (I still believe the over-the-top criticism of Barkley’s ineffectiveness in chipping then-Steeler Bud Dupree in the 2020 season opener was unfair. As coincidence would have it, the Giants open their 2022 season in Tennessee, with Dupree now wearing a Titans uniform.)
Since Faulk’s internship ended, Young has spent time one-on-one with Barkley. On the day we spoke recently, she and Barkley would use ski poles, highlighting the ability to weave through traffic and emphasizing balance. There is the helmet-on-a-stick drill, mimicking a defensive player trying to poke the ball loose.
I asked Young how she holds the helmet. “Very tightly” was the reply. In another drill, Barkley holds a tennis ball while trying to also catch a football.
Barkley summarized his summer with Young and Faulk: “Pass-pro is a big focus for me, so we take that time, whether it’s pass-pro, catching, running back drills, just getting the hands active, getting the feet active, whatever it can be to help make me a better player. We use that time for that.”
What was Young’s biggest takeaway from her first Summer with Saquon? “How humble he is.”
I first met Barkley at Penn State – we share an alma mater – in 2017, and I wrote a 2,000-word piece on him ahead of the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine. The headline: Catch Me If You Can.
The goal, of course, is not only for Barkley, who is 25 and entering his fifth season, to be a better player, but also a healthy one. And to help carry the Giants toward respectability again after a string of disappointing years.
First, Barkley has to stay healthy.
He missed three games in 2019, his second season, with a high ankle sprain sustained in Week 3 at Tampa Bay.
Then, he missed 14 games in 2020 when he tore his ACL in Week 2 against Chicago.
He missed four games in 2021 after he stepped on the foot of Dallas’ Jourdan Lewis in Week 5, a bizarre play away from the ball and one that caused Barkley’s ankle to immediately balloon – an image caught by TV cameras.
To this point, Barkley’s first season was easily his best. That was not by accident, and he has an Offensive Rookie of the Year honor to show for it. He recorded 2,028 scrimmage yards that year. He also had another premier playmaker on the field with him: Odell Beckham, Jr. Defenses had choices to make.
(Under new general manager Joe Schoen and coach Brian Daboll – both with Buffalo Bills’ roots – the Giants appear to be upgrading their roster, including the group of playmakers. But that remains to be seen.)
The Giants traded Beckham to the Browns after that 2018 season. During the past three seasons combined, Barkley has totaled 2,391 yards from scrimmage.
Barkley is entering his fifth season and carrying a salary of $7.2 million. Obviously, he’ll try to stay healthy, stay on the field and, potentially, block the Bud Duprees of the NFL world, perhaps as soon as Sunday.
Yes, there is a prove-it feel to all of this.
Barkley has recently described himself as thankful and blessed. That does not mean he isn’t highly motivated. He has been counted out by some, including friendly fire from Giants fans. He’s been discounted by others. The slow burn, at least on the public level, started last Dec. 29, when he was a guest on my radio show on WFAN-FM in New York City.
He was different in that interview than I had ever heard him publicly, saying that his doubters should “stay on that side of the table when things flip around” after three injured-riddled seasons.
More recently, Barkley was asked by a reporter what the difference is for him this year compared to last.
He talked about being “fed up (with the) outside noise.” He said he’s now “just happy, enjoying life, enjoying the game I love and I just want to go out there and have fun.”
On that day, there was one more question: Is there anything specific that you can do now that you couldn’t do last year?
Barkley answered in these three words: “I couldn’t practice.”
He was a full participant in training camp. He has been on the field with his teammates. Saquon Barkley looks ready for the season.
Catch him if you can.