Quarterbacks aside, the NFL is a young man’s game.
From rookies leading the league in rushing to second-year players making All-Pro teams, youth proves to be just as valuable as experience sometimes. The Giants have a mix of both, but they will lean heavily on a handful of young players this season, with the expectation they will make a major impact on the field. Here are some of those players:
RB SAQUON BARKLEY: Before and after drafting the dynamic running back, general manager Dave Gettleman didn’t shy away from expressing the ultimate goal for second overall draft picks, which the Giants held this past April. “Can we picture him some day putting on a gold jacket?” he said. Barkley, who electrified the college football landscape at Penn State, passed the test. Now the real fun begins. While that type of pressure could be daunting, Barkley and the Giants feel like he is up to the task. On his first NFL snap in the preseason, Barkley added to the hype by breaking a 39-yard run. A tweaked hamstring eventually cooled things for a bit as he missed practice time and did not appear in another preseason game after the opener. But the Giants wanted to be smart with him. Barkley has returned to practice fully and all systems are go for Week 1. He is following in the path of Ezekiel Elliott and Kareem Hunt, rookies who led the league in rushing in back-to-back years.
TE EVAN ENGRAM: Engram was one of the most productive players at his position in the NFL last year, let alone rookie tight ends. Named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team, Engram became the focal point of the Giants’ offense when a string of injuries hit the wide receiver corps, including Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. The trial by fire accelerated his learning curve, and coach Pat Shurmur is lining him up all over the field as a sophomore. “The fact that we have a pass-catching tight end is something that is very valuable to a team,” Shurmur said earlier this summer, “because now a defense has to decide when you have two tight ends and him being one of them, him being Evan, that are they going to stay base or play nickel? And then the chess game begins from there.”
WR STERLING SHEPARD: The former second-round draft choice is somewhere between being considered a young player and a seasoned veteran as he enters the all-important third year for a receiver. Eli Manning thought Shepard, like Engram, had a great spring, which led to a big summer. In the third preseason game where starters played into the second half, Shepard had seven catches for 78 yards, including a tough 30-yard grab.
LG WILL HERNANDEZ: With new starters at all five positions on the offensive line, Hernandez is cutting his teeth in the NFL next to two-time Super Bowl champion left tackle Nate Solder. The hog mollies are charged with protecting the blindside of a 37-year-old quarterback, something Hernandez takes as a personal responsibility. He has certainly shown he will fight for it.
OLB LORENZO CARTER: The Giants were always going to need the pass-rusher to produce as a rookie, but that amplified a bit after Olivier Vernon sprained his ankle in practice this week. Carter turned heads in training camp and into the preseason, where he recorded 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks in four games.
DT B.J. HILL: Taken three picks after Carter in the third round, Hill worked his way into the starting lineup in the 3-4 front next to Damon Harrison and Dalvin Tomlinson. The first thing defensive line coach Gary Emanuel told Harrison this offseason was “you’re going to love 95” in reference to Hill’s jersey number. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher likes the rookie, too. “He’s been really physical at the point,” Bettcher said. “I think one thing he really does well for a young guy is plays well with his hands at the line of scrimmage, and I think some of the guys you get coming in, their hands aren’t well enough but they’re not fast enough or they’re not strong enough to be able to handle the blockers that they have to play against in this league, and he’s done well with that. We’ve moved him around in the line too, you’ve seen him lining up as a nose, as a three technique, as a five technique, a guy that’ll have some position flexibility and some things for us.”
P RILEY DIXON: It would be an oversight not to mention a special teamer based on what we saw in the preseason and how Gettleman put together his roster. Days before the draft, the Giants acquired punter Riley Dixon in a trade with the Denver Broncos, who received a conditional 2019 seventh-round draft choice. They needed Dixon after releasing Brad Wing, the team’s punter the previous three seasons. Dixon, a Syracuse product from Oneida, N.Y., looked every bit worth the trade in the preseason, leading the NFL with 11 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Dixon is another ascending player on the roster as he embarks on his third season.