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Joe Judge: Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley stepping into leadership roles

Following an offseason that featured the signing of several veteran free agents, a 10-player draft class and numerous undrafted rookie free agents, the Giants sport one of the younger rosters in the NFL.

When the Giants arrive at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center for the start of training camp, only six of the 91 players will be over the age of 30 (the Giants were allocated Sandro Platzgummer, an Austrian running back, as part of the NFL International Player Pathway Program, allowing them an extra roster spot). But one notable difference between this year's camp and those of previous years will be the absence of Giants all-time great Eli Manning, who retired from the NFL in January.

Manning spent 16 years with the Giants and served as a team captain for the last 13. With the veteran quarterback now gone, the team must look toward some of its younger players to fill that leadership void.

NFL Network’s Kim Jones spoke to Giants head coach Joe Judge this week about several topics, including some players who have already started to step up as leaders. One is quarterback Daniel Jones. While Judge is encouraged by what he saw on film from the quarterback during his rookie campaign, the head coach is more impressed with what he has witnessed from Jones over the last few months.

"Just watching his rookie tape, obviously, he has a skillset to work with," Judge said. "He throws a good, accurate ball, has good arm strength. There are some things he has to improve on. I'm not going to get into a full assessment right here, criticizing him in public just yet, but I would just say he's got a skillset.

"I've been more impressed with the way he's worked off the field than anything else right now. He's had a very good spring. He's been very active in our virtual meetings. Demonstrated a passion for the game, demonstrated a very good command of the new system and recall. Good situational awareness. And you can tell he loves football. That's one thing that's really come through with our experiences this spring. We do have a lot of team-first guys who really love the game. That carries over to how they work on a daily basis."

Jones set a number of franchise rookie records in 2019, including passing touchdowns, passing yards and completions. His 24 touchdown passes were three shy of the all-time NFL rookie mark set by Baker Mayfield in 2018.

Jones recently organized an off-site workout program with several of his skill position players in Austin, Texas, further highlighting his leadership qualities. 

The development of the second-year quarterback will play a significant role in the offense's success this season, but he is far from the only one.

Saquon Barkley has been in the league for only two seasons yet has already put together an impressive resume. As a rookie in 2018, Barkley accumulated over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns. The running back set several NFL and Giants records that year on his way to the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year award, as well as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Despite missing three and a half games in 2019, Barkley still rushed for over 1,000 yards, becoming the first running back in team history to reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark in each of his first two seasons.

The Giants will look to the star running back to take on an even bigger role this year. Based on what he's seen from Barkley throughout the virtual offseason program, Judge is confident that the 23-year-old is ready to become one of the team's leaders.

"You know what, I've really enjoyed working with him this spring," Judge told Jones. "That entire running back group has been phenomenal in terms of their work ethic, their personalities, how to come (to work), how they support each other. They genuinely care about each other and help each other.

"I think Saquon has really demonstrated that team-first attitude, and it all starts with that. You talk about leadership and doing your job effectively, making decisions that put the team first, he has demonstrated that this spring. And you have to have that. He's a competitor. He cares about winning. That's important -- and you can't take that for granted. There's a lot of people in this league who don't truly care about winning. And he does. And that's important, not just for his coaches but for the other players who are alongside of him, knowing he's doing what's necessary for the team to have success on a weekly basis. I really enjoy working with all of our players; the question was specifically about Saquon, so I wanted to answer it. And I've very much enjoyed working with him."

After spending the No. 2 overall pick on Barkley in 2018 and the No. 6 overall pick on Jones in 2019, improving the offensive line was one of the biggest priorities for the Giants this offseason. Three of the team's first five draft selections were used on offensive linemen, including the No. 4 overall pick, Georgia tackle Andrew Thomas.

Thomas, as well as third-round pick Matt Peart of UConn, join an offensive tackle group consisting of veteran Nate Solder and the recently-signed Cameron Fleming. All four players have spent time at both left and right tackle, providing the unit with plenty of position flexibility.

Judge has made it clear all offseason that no starting job will be handed to anyone; those roles will be earned throughout training camp and the preseason. He reiterated that to Jones when asked about the team's starting tackle positions.

"We're really going to let the competition determine where everything falls out," Judge said. "So, we're going to work all of our tackles both on the left and right. We'll have a period of time to see through competitive drills, teamwork, scrimmages and preseason games early on (so we can) best identify" the ideal starting pair.

"We want to work to all of our strengths and do the best thing for the players, the best thing for the team. We're really going to let what they do on the field determine that. We do have guys who have played on the left and right side, so it's not anything new to any of our guys. We're going let them go through training camp and let the competition sort it out."

This offseason has been anything but normal for the first-year head coach. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Quest Diagnostics Training Center, along with all NFL team headquarters, has been closed to players since mid-March. Judge and his staff have had to install the team's new offense and defense remotely while not being able to see the players actually step onto a field.

While it would be easy to use the events of the last few months as a crutch, Judge refuses. Regardless of circumstances, his objective is to put the best possible product on the field.

"I'm not an excuses guy and our players aren't going to be an excuses team," said Judge. "Listen, we represent an area (of the country) that has been through a tremendous amount of difficulty, and they're not making excuses, either. I talked about this at my (introductory) press conference and I meant it: I want to put a product on the field that the people of this (area) can be proud of.

"They don't have excuses. They have to wake up and find a way to work and pay bills and take care of their children. They're not making excuses and we're not making excuses, either. We have something to accomplish. Whatever means you give us to work, we're going to find a way to work. We have an identity we have to build. We have a culture we have to build. But we're committed to building that."

View photos of the Giants' 90-man roster as it currently stands.

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