EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – In his 2018 debut season, Saquon Barkley played all 16 games and caught 91 passes (5.7 a game), an NFL record for a rookie running back. The Giants' stellar back, who finished second in the league with 1,307 rushing yards, was 13th in receptions.
"I think it was cool," Barkley said today of his usage as a rookie in the passing game. "I feel like whenever I can get the ball in space, I feel like that's where I'm at my best. I feel like no matter what, I feel like I've got the confidence now whether it's in between the tackles, outside the tackles, out wide or whatever, especially when you have confidence in your body again. I feel like I'm capable of helping the team, but especially in space."
"You know, however it is, whether it's 91 catches, whether it's less than that, whether it's more than that, the main thing is more (wins). That starts with the little things and that starts with right now, finishing minicamp real strong and that little six-week, seven-week period that we have, capitalizing on that and getting my body in shape and getting ready for camp and the regular season."
Barkley was beset by injuries in his three subsequent seasons, when he played a total of 28 games and had 99 receptions (3.5 a game).
New Giants coach Brian Daboll earned his position by designing and executing prolific offenses in Buffalo and other stops as a coordinator. Daboll isn't about to reveal plans for the 2022 attack, but it's safe to say he would like Barkley to return to his Rookie of the Year form not just as a runner, but as a receiver.
"I think any time you have a good player, if you're an offensive play-caller scheming, you find a way to get the best players the football," Daboll said. "Targets. Sometimes as a decoy, touches in the run game. Guys that can produce and make yards with the ball in their hand, as a play caller, you like those guys."
Barkley has lined up in numerous positions and caught as many passes as any player throughout the spring practices. That is not necessarily indicative of what will happen when the season begins in September. Because players are prohibited from wearing pads, throwing and catching are always emphasized more than handoffs and pitchouts at this time of year.
But if Daboll wants to frequently use him as a receiver, Barkley will be ready.
"I'm not really expecting anything," Barkley said. "It's more of a passing camp, so I'm probably moving around a little bit more. But just in case if that is the game plan or the goal for me this year, to go out there and catch the ball a little bit more, I've got to be ready for it. It starts here. It starts here in minicamp, and as I said, going into this little break that we have, getting with Daniel, getting with quarterbacks and just working on my hands, working on that part of the game so I can be versatile.
"I feel like the more versatile you can be as a player, the more helpful you can be to your team, and I want to help this team win games."
Daboll has coached in the NFL for 20 years. He has worked with numerous talented running backs, including LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore and Devin Singletary during his four-year stint as Buffalo's coordinator.
"I think Saquon is a unique guy," Daboll said. "You move him in different spots, that makes other guys have to learn other spots, too. It really falls on the five eligible receivers or the personnel groups you hope to utilize. He's got good hands, he's a good route runner, a good runner. Try to use him the best way we can.
"In terms of other running backs I have had, I wouldn't compare him to any of the other guys I've had. Guys like Reggie Bush I had at Miami were good in the pass game."
Daboll hinted that Barkley's role could differ from game to game.
"Each week presents its own unique challenge, how the defense wants to play you, what kind of personnel they want to play, how do they see it, do they see him more as a sub guy, do they want to load up the box and play it differently," Daboll said. "I think that's a week-to-week type of deal."
Perhaps the most important variable in the Giants getting maximum value from Barkley is his health. In 2019, he missed three games with a sprained ankle. The following season, a torn ACL suffered in Week 2 cost him the final 14½ games. Last Oct. 10 in Dallas, he landed on a Cowboys player's foot and again missed three games due to a sprained ankle.
But Barkley has showed no residual effects of those injuries this spring.
"He's been good," Daboll said. "He's been able to do everything we've asked him to do. Run the different runs when we're doing them. Those are more walk-through relative to how camp is being played. The routes we are asking him to run, his quickness, his ability to get in and out of breaks, his long speed, it's all looked good.
"I see a talented player. I'm glad he's on our team. Look forward to working with him. He's been great since I've been here just on the field, running around. Has been impressive. Again, we got to go out there and do it with pads and under some pressure. Everything we've asked him to do to this point, he has done a really nice job."
Barkley appeared to play in another dimension as a rookie. He rushed for 106 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown, in his first game and caught a Giants-record 14 passes in his second. Barkley exceeded 100 scrimmage yards in 12 of his first 13 games.
The injuries took their toll the last three seasons. But Barkley is confident he can still be the player he was four years ago.
"Just because you had to go through a little bit the past couple years," he said. "It just helped mold me, shape me to be the player I am right now and just coming into this camp, focusing on my body, working on my body, doing all the little things necessary to keep my body healthy. When you've got that, when you can trust your body, your confidence just grows. I was a way more confident player in college and early in my career than I was prior to the last year and then last year. Now I'm starting to get that back, starting to get that swagger back.
"You can't get too high on it because it's just minicamp right now, but all the little stuff in gaining confidence here, in this break that we have, hopefully catapults and pushes me through camp and to the regular season and beyond hopefully."
*The spring practices taught Daboll that his current position has one consistent difference from being a coordinator or position coach.
"I'm learning as a head coach it's never a good practice," he said, "because one side is either doing good or the other side is doing bad."
*Daboll ordered the players to remove their helmets for the final 45 minutes of practice.
"It could be seen as both ways, good and bad," safety Julian Love said. "Bad in the sense of there's a lot of competitive talk in the locker room each day about who won the day. Heated battles. I don't think we were given enough of a chance to compete today, so yeah, there's that conversation. I think defensively we wanted to get after it a little more today, but tone it down, health-wise, making sure everybody is good. I guess that's the good thing."