EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – At 21 years of age, Saquon Barkley is the youngest player on the Giants' roster, including the 10-man practice squad. He has touched the football 102 times in his five career games for a team that has six veteran players serving as captains.
But neither age nor inexperience has precluded Barkley from becoming a leader on the 2018 Giants. It's a role he relishes and is comfortable in, and one his head coach encourages him to accept.
"I felt that way since I was drafted here," said Barkley, the second overall selection in this year's NFL Draft. "That's something I wanted to do as a goal of mine, but I know you can't just take on that role from day one. You got to grow into that role and earn the respect of your teammates, and that's something I'm going to continue to try to do every single day."
He has done that through his actions on and off the field. Barkley leads all NFL rookies with 582 yards from scrimmage, including 308 rushing. Barkley is also a vocal and positive influence on his older and more seasoned teammates.
On Sunday, Barkley caught the first two touchdown passes of his career in the Giants' last-second 33-31 loss to the Carolina Panthers. But a conversation that took place after the game could have longer-term implications for the team.
"I spent a few minutes sitting with him on the plane after the game," coach Pat Shurmur said of Barkley. "I really think some of your younger players can be your best leaders. In the case of Saquon, he's doing everything that you would want to see as a coach. He displays – he's a lot like (Philadelphia quarterback) Carson Wentz, who I just talked about (and who the Giants host Thursday night). He displays humility, he says the right thing but when he says it, and you all write about it and report on it, don't you sense a genuine nature to what he says? You've got a genuine, competitive guy that can do really great things on the football field. Those guys can lead naturally by just being themselves. If Saquon comes in everyday and everyday becomes the best version of Saquon he can become, and he sticks to those principles and that integrity, then of course, he'll be a terrific leader, and he already has established himself that way."
Barkley declined to divulge details of his chat with the coach.
"Coach Shurmur sat down on the plane with me and said some great things that I needed to hear," Barkley said, "but obviously that's a conversation between me and coach Shurmur."
But he did reveal why an NFL newcomer who is the youngest in a group of 71 men (including those on injured reserve and non-football injury/illness lists) can become a leader.
"It's just the way you carry yourself, the way you work," Barkley said. "Come to work with your head down, try to do anything you can possible to help the team. That stuff goes a long way. Obviously, your play on the field goes a long way too, but try to be one of the first people in here, working your butt off in the weight room, asking questions, try to prepare yourself like a pro, like a vet. Stuff like that is what sits well with your team, and that's how I try to continue to grow into that role."
It helps that Barkley is relentlessly upbeat. He was bullish on the offense when it struggled to score early in the season, and he is even more positive after the 31-pooint outburst against the Panthers.
"I think that showed what we're capable of and we put up 30 points, but I think we left a couple still out there, too," Barkley said. "I've been saying from day one since I got here that I believe in this offense, I believe in this team, I believe in the coaching staff and I believe the sky's the limit. It wasn't going to be pretty from day one. We wouldn't want it that way, anyway. We got to continue to keep growing, continue to keep working and to be able to put up 30 points and obviously lose a game like that, I think that game showed it was the toughness, the grit, the passion that we played with as a team and obviously the outcome wasn't the way we wanted to be. But you could learn a lot of things from that game and take that game a long way."
Spoken like a true leader.
*Linebacker Olivier Vernon, who missed the first five games with an ankle injury, and tight end Evan Engram (who sat out the last two with a knee injury) both practiced on a limited basis today. Shurmur is hopeful they will face the Eagles on Thursday.
Shurmur was asked about giving Engram another game off, since the Giants' won't play again until Monday, Oct. 22, in Atlanta.
"I think you burn the ships on every game, so whoever can play, plays," Shurmur said. "Then you reassess when the game is over. Evan's been out for a while, but he's going to be out here full speed today, so we are hopeful he will be ready to go. I think you get yourself in trouble, and I don't think it's very genuine to tell your team we're going to worry more about down the road. I don't know if that answers your question. We've put all our focus on the game we're going to play and all our urgency."
If they play, will Vernon and/or Engram be limited to a certain number of plays?
"Burn the ships," Shurmur said. "If they get a jersey, they're going to play. Then we manage it and keep track of it, but not necessarily a pitch count. Games play out differently, and so if you're up, we expect that you can take a full load. If during the game there's places where we've got to give guys a break, we do so."
*Kicker Aldrick Rosas did not practice because of a quad injury. Marshall Koehn, signed to the practice squad today, did the kicking in practice. If the Giants need to make a roster move prior to the game, they must do so by 4 p.m. Thursday.
Rosas has made all 11 of his field goal attempts this season.
"(We would make a move as late as we have to," Shurmur said. "I'll have to wait and see, but (Rosas) got a little leg injury, we'll just see how quickly he can come back. That's the challenge when you play a Thursday Night game. As you might expect in our world right now, it's Thursday. As we get ready for the game, which it's really like Friday, but Thursday in terms of preparation, when their body clocks tell them it's Tuesday. That's the challenge with the Thursday Night games and we all have to embrace it because we all have one. Our guys have really done a good job of getting themselves back. That was a physical game (at Carolina) and there's wear and tear that goes with that, and they've done a good job to this point."
*In addition to Rosas, linebacker Connor Barwin (knee) and wide receiver Russell Shepard (neck) did not practice. Tight end Rhett Ellison (foot) was limited.