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New starter Chad Wheeler faces another test

Keep an eye on these five players as the Giants take on the Saints, Sunday at home

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – When he's not wearing a football uniform, Chad Wheeler is the archetype laid-back Southern Californian. His hair is long and his emotional range is short. Wheeler is a slow walker and soft talker, a young man who in a different setting would likely be labeled a surfer dude.

But on the field? That's where you'll find a different Wheeler.

"You got to change personalities," Wheeler said this week. "You can't be laid back. You got to be relaxed, but you don't want to be tense. You got to be real focused. It's a battle out there, so can't be laid back. You don't want to hurt them, but you want to compete against them hard. Yeah, it's just a different mentality stepping on the field."

Wheeler is spending a lot more time there. Last week in Houston, he replaced Ereck Flowers as the Giants' starting right tackle and played the entire game in the team's first victory of the season. Wheeler had his hands full with the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who had three sacks.

But coach Pat Shurmur said it's wrong to grade Wheeler's performance only on those three plays.

"I thought Chad did a good job in his first performance against a really good player, and he did a good job in the run game," Shurmur said. "On a lot of those pass plays, he blocked really well. The one thing about Chad is he cares and he competes. When you care and you compete and you work at it, then as you play more and more, you will improve, and I think that's what we're looking for. But he helped us win the game last week."

Wheeler faces another big test tomorrow when the Giants host New Orleans in MetLife Stadium. The Saints' most disruptive defensive player is end Cameron Jordan, who usually lines up on the opposing offense's right side. Jordan finished tied for fourth in the NFL last year with 13.0 sacks. Through the first three weeks of this season, he is tied for the league lead with 4.0.

"He's just a big, fast, technically-sound guy," Wheeler said. "He uses his hands real well. He understands what you want to do to him, and he uses that against you."

"We've got another great challenge," Shurmur said. "He's a marquee pass rusher. For the most part, he'll be lining up on the right side. So we got do a good job of blocking him. He's good against the run. He's good against the pass. You got to be aware of him, no matter what play you call, because he's a guy that can really disrupt the game."

Wheeler, 6-7 and 317 pounds, joined the Giants last year as a rookie free agent. In his debut season, he played in 11 games with five starts – three at right tackle and one each at left tackle and as an extra lineman. Wheeler was exclusively a left tackle at USC, where he started 45 games.

He thought he had the credentials to get drafted, but no team selected him. It was not the first time Wheeler was snubbed, and he carries those chips on chips on his shoulders every time he steps on the field.

"I got a couple of chips," he said. "I got a two-star high school recruit chip; didn't get too many offers coming out of high school. And then I was an undrafted free agent, so I have a lot to prove."

At some point, perhaps Wheeler's skill will be evident to all. He started for four seasons at one of the nation's traditional college football powers, and last week he replaced a player who was the ninth overall choice in the 2015 NFL Draft.

"(I) just have to be super consistent and play a lot better than people think I can play," Wheeler said.

So far, so good.

*Count running backs coach Craig Johnson among those who have been impressed by Saquon Barkley. Tomorrow, the Giants' first-round draft choice can become the fifth player in NFL history to record at least 100 scrimmage yards in each of his first four career games. The others are Billy Sims, LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson and Kareem Hunt (who began his career last year with seven straight 100-yard games).

"For a young player, he's really had a good starting experience," Johnson said. "He has done a good job in all three phases – he's done a good job running the ball, he's done a good job in the pass protection, he's done a good job obviously in catching the ball. Like all young players, he's got some room to grow, but a very good start for him. He and I are never satisfied, so we will keep working to get better."

Johnson also likes how Barkley has responded to the hype and attention of playing in the NFL's largest market after being selected No.2 overall in the draft.

"So far what I've seen is he has handled it like a real pro," Johnson said. "Obviously, he does have a lot of attention, there's a lot of focus on him, and the only time you see sometimes when I want to speak to him is because he wants to do so well for our team that sometimes, 'Man, I didn't do that exactly right.' (That) goes back to the point – self-critique is good as long as you don't over-critique, so you can't let that last play go and go on to the next play."

*The Giants defeated the Saints, 16-13, in their last meeting, on Sept. 18, 2016. That increased their lead in the series that began in 1967 to … 16-13. From 2009-15, the teams faced each other four times, and the winner scored at least 48 points in each game, including 52-point outbursts by the Giants in 2012 and the Saints three years later.