Let’s not forget that the last time we saw running back Saquon Barkley healthy for an entire season, he rushed for over 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first year as a pro.
Since then it’s been two seasons surrounded by injuries. Barkley played in 13 games in 2019, and then just two games in 2020. The 2020 injury was a devastating one, as Barkley tore his ACL and needed major surgery to repair it. Going into this season, we are hoping to see a healthy Barkley, but given that the surgery happened in October, the timeline of recovery could still linger into the regular season.
New York Giants owner John Mara said the team expects Barkley to be “as good as new” following his injury, which is a bold statement even if he has confidence Barkley will bounce back. The Giants also recently picked up the fifth-year option on Barkley’s rookie deal. It’s clear there is no hesitation for faith in the team’s 2018 second-overall pick from management.
Now, there starts to be a strong clashing of projections when it comes to Barkley’s early season use. Ideally, New York should ease Barkley back into action, especially when it comes to full-speed work in the regular season. But such a role has never been a part of Barkley’s football career, including his time as a pro. In his lone season of 16 games, Bakley played in 83 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. Barkley led the Giants in carries that season with 261. Behind him was Wayne Gallman with just 51. And in the receiving game, Barkley’s 121 targets were second to only Odell Beckham Jr., who had 124. That’s some wildly high usage. The Giants might not have a choice when it comes to how much they want to use Barkley. Whether they’re playing well or not, Barley simply may not be comfortable in the first few weeks of the season. All fans of the game certainly hope that a talented player like Barkley will get to full form as soon as possible, but there's no sure date as to when that will be.
The answer to how comfortable the Giants might really be when it comes to easing Barkley into things is what other options they have. Behind Barkley on the depth chart are Devontae Booker, Corey Clement, Ryquell Armstead, Gary Brightwell, and Elijhaa Penny. Booker’s most productive season was his rookie year, but that was five years ago. Since then he’s never played more than 30% of his team’s offensive snaps. Clement is a rotational back, Armstead is a second-year player who doesn’t have starting experience, and Brightwell is a rookie himself. Penny has been with the Giants for the past three seasons but has not been a significant offensive player.
The Giants open their season against the Denver Broncos, which, barring an Aaron Rodgers trade, is winnable even with a rotational Barkley. They then have a divisional game against the Washington Football Team, followed by a game against a likely struggling Atlanta Falcons team. If New York can even buy itself three games of tune-up time before paying the Saints in New Orleans in Week 4, it’ll be ready to truly unleash Barkley.
It would be unfair to expect something similar to that of Barkley’s rookie season in his first year back since major surgery. But Barkley has proven, during the time he is healthy, that he’s one of the most talented athletes in the world at his position. It might be a slow burn for the first few weeks, but as long as there are no setbacks, expect to see RB1-type Barkley for most of the year.