EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Jonathan Stewart is not exactly experiencing déjà vu in his first Giants training camp, but the veteran running back knows he's been in this situation before.
Ten years ago, Stewart was a rookie first-round draft choice – 13th pick overall - with the Carolina Panthers. He joined a backfield that was coached by Jim Skipper (a former Giants assistant) and included four-year veteran and former first-round selection DeAngelo Williams, Brad Hoover and Nick Goings.
"It was good to have vets around," Stewart said today. "They did a great job of just making sure that I knew what was going on."
Fast forward a decade. With 7,318 career rushing yards, Stewart has joined another impressive group of running backs. Once again he is playing with a first-round choice; now, it's Saquon Barkley, the second overall selection in the 2018 draft. Also in the running backs room are Wayne Gallman, Paul Perkins (currently on the reserve/non-football injury list), young free agents Jalen Simmons and Rob Martin, and fullback Shane Smith.
"The running back room has been really cool," Stewart said. The running back coach (Craig Johnson) is smart, has a lot of wisdom, a lot of knowledge. Everybody there can play and not only can they play, but they're very smart so it makes everything easy."
Ten years ago, Stewart was soaking up lessons from his more experienced teammates. Now he is a mentor; the rest of the group combined does not have even half the NFL experience that Stewart possesses.
"Every day I get a couple of questions here and there," Stewart said. "You can definitely tell that they're eager to learn and just work on their craft, and just be better teammates and football players.
"At the end of the day, we're a team and there's no hierarchy. You have to do your job and you have to help the team win, but the moment you start thinking of yourself as something bigger than the team, that's when things can go downhill."
But no one is pretending Barkley is not a special player in this camp. His draft status alone demands that he receive much scrutiny. The former Penn State star also possess uncommon physical attributes and skill. But he is also a smart player who is eager to learn from his more experienced teammates in the backfield. Barkley is constantly picking Stewart's brain for insights.
"He's a student of the game, and if you're not asking questions then you don't really care," Stewart said. "All credit to him because his preparation, just coming in here and just the mindset to be ready to pretty much soak up any and everything about this offense and about the professional level, that's that guy."
"You've got to stay in your books, you got to know what's going on. Me being an older guy too, and being in a room full of young guys, has definitely made me more youthful."
Stewart and his younger teammates are on the same level in one important respect: they are all new to Pat Shurmur's offense. So is offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who was with Stewart and the Panthers the previous seven years, the last five as coordinator.
"If you're not learning everyday, then you're getting dumber," Stewart said. "So you've got to figure something to get better at every day. I'm always picking the other guys' brains. I'm always trying to pick Eli's (Manning) brain, some of the receivers' brains. Even from my running back peers. Just because I'm older and a vet doesn't make it that I know everything."
Barkley and Stewart have split the first-team reps early in camp. Though it is widely assumed
that the prized rookie will be the Giants' feature back, the determined veteran is conceding nothing.
"I approach it like I do every year," Stewart said. "I play this game to win football games and at the end of the day you practice like you're the starter, because you never know when your number is going to be called. That's how I've ever done it since I was in high school."
It's a prescription that has made him a productive player for 10 years, so he's not about to alter it now.
*Stewart's general manager in Carolina for four seasons was Dave Gettleman, who now holds the same post with the Giants. Gettleman's lymphoma is in remission, and Stewart was happy to see him address the team Wednesday night.
"His attitude about everything right now that he's going through is very inspirational," Stewart said. "I'm just glad to see him up and walking and smiling, so it's good.
"Cancer is as terrible as it is. It's definitely uplifting for those who get the opportunity to watch someone like Gettleman just battle. It's really cool."