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Position Preview: Unreachable expectations for running back Saquon Barkley?

The Giants are banking on the answer to that being “no”

NFL: New York Giants-OTA Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants went against the grain when they selected running back Saquon Barkley No. 2 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.

They had to take a quarterback to be ready for life after the 37-year-old Eli Manning. Didn’t they? No one takes running backs at No. 2 in the draft any more because the positional value, with the league being so pass-centric, just isn’t there. Right?

Well, the Giants took Barkley. They did so because as an organization they believe Manning, with the right help, can still be a winning quarterback and because Barkley, the player GM Dave Gettleman called “the best player in the draft” offered the best opportunity to provide that help. He called the value argument “a crock.”

So, what should the expectations be for the rookie running back media and fans taken to calling “SaQuads” because of, well, his massive quads, of course?

Oddsmakers think he will be NFL Rookie of the Year. Twelve-hundred yards and more than 50 receptions is the prediction from Former running back LaDainian Tomlinson thinks Barkley is “ready-made for the NFL” and should get at least 1,300 rushing yards. Bucky Brooks of believes “Barkley could overtake OBJ as the team’s top offensive player.”

The expectations for Barkley are clear, if not simple or easy to achieve. Be a great player, good enough to justify your selection even if Sam Darnold turns out to be a great quarterback. Change the Giants franchise in a way Beckham, for all his talents, has never been able to. Be the player who justifies the path the organization has chosen. Become the face of that franchise.

Barkley has to do one other thing — prove me wrong. This is part of what I wrote about the second overall pick before the Giants used it on the former Penn State star:

There is no doubt Barkley would make the Giants better. Is he good enough, though, to pass on a player at a position NFL teams consider to be of higher value?

That’s the question. I have said before that the only truly wrong answer for the Giants at No. 2 would be to have the quarterback they want in their grasp and let him slide by.

All Barkley needs to do to meet expectations in 2018 is be a difference-maker who makes everyone else on the team better.

This is part of what Gettleman said when the Giants drafted Barkley:

“This kid makes our quarterback better, he makes our receivers better, he makes our O-line better. He makes our defense better because he has the much stronger ability to hold the ball. He is a great kid and he will be great for our culture. He was the unanimous best player in our draft.”

Nope. No pressure.

While we spent gobs of pre-draft time arguing about quarterbacks, perhaps we should have been able to read the Giants’ true intentions. They practically screamed them at us.

Gettleman gushed about Barkley every time he was asked during the draft buildup. Head coach Pat Shurmur was top dog with the Cleveland Browns when they, mistakenly as it turn out, drafted Trent Richardson No. 3 overall. A year ago, when Shurmur was offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, they chose running back Dalvin Cook early in the draft, Round 2.

The Giants have not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ahmad Bradshaw in 2012. Barkley will be expected to end that streak. He will be expected to make defenses pay if they sit back in the Cover 2 that has vexed the Giants for years, trying to limit the damage Beckham can do.

In the passing game, Barkley will be expected to be the kind of play-maker (with apologies to Shane Vereen) the Giants haven’t had since Tiki Barber.

“He is unique for me because he has quickness and he has speed,” Shurmur said. “He can score touchdowns from any part of the field and he has a couple of things I am looking for,” Number one, he can catch the football. That is first and foremost.”

Shurmur indicated that Barkley will see the ball come his way — a lot.

“The running back is an easy guy to fit in an offense. You have to turn around and hand it to him. It doesn’t take a genius to do that,” he said. “Then, a lot of times when you try and throw the ball downfield and they cover them all, you can dump him off the ball, or you can feature him in the pass game.

“I have seen the effects of a really, really good running back not only on the offense, but on the team. You have to run the football not just for your offense, but for your team. I have seen the effect that a great running back can have on teams. I was excited about the fact that he was the best player in the draft and I was excited about the fact that we were able to draft him.

Now, all Barkley has to do is live up to those expectations.

Let’s examine the rest of the Giants’ running back picture as we continue our position-by-position previews to get you ready for 2018 training camp.

Roles for the backups?

Wayne Gallman, a 2017 fourth-round pick, had a productive rookie season. In 13 games, he carried 11 times for 476 yards (4.3 yards per carry). He also caught 34 passes for another 193 yards. Gallman’s Pro Football Focus “elusive rating” of 54.1, measuring success beyond what was generated by blocking help, was 13th in the NFL last season among backs who had at least 25 percent of their team’s carries.

With Barkley on board, though, how often will the Wayne Train be able to get on the tracks and get revved up?

Maybe more often than you might think. Barkley can’t handle every snap and every carry. Coach Pat Shurmur does value versatility, the ability to both run and catch, from his backs. Gallman can do both.

While Barkley is an excellent pass receiver, perhaps a role as a pass-catching third-down type back could be in Gallman’s future. Or, simply as a player who handles an occasional series to give Barkley some rest.

Jonathan Stewart comes to the Giants after 10 highly productive seasons with the Carolina Panthers. GM Dave Gettleman, who formerly had that role with the Panthers didn’t bring Stewart from Carolina out of sympathy. He brought Stewart in as a mentor to the young backs on the roster and because both the GM and player believe Stewart still has gas in the tank.

“I’ve got a lot left,” Stewart told media in a conference call after his signing was announced. “The only reason why I would be playing is if I knew I could play and I know I can play, Dave knows I can play -- there is a lot that I feel I want to prove and writing my own story as far as how things shape up moving forward for me. I’m excited about the opportunity at hand and I’m grateful for the owners taking a chance on me and trusting in the GM and the coaching staff to trust me.”

Stewart’s per carry average has gone down the past two seasons, from 4.1 yards in 2015 to 3.8 in 2016 and down to a career-low 3.4 yards per attempt last season. Still, he posted a +47.9 PFF run grade and was 18th in the league in missed tackles forced with 28.

At 5-foot-10, 240 pounds with a penchant for finding the end zone (51 career rushing touchdowns) the logical role for Stewart would be that of short-yardage and goal line back.

Three backs or four?

Ideally, carrying four backs on the 53-man roster seems like a good idea. The Giants, though, likely only have game day roles — and uniforms — for three backs. So, to supplement Barkley, Gallman and Stewart should the Giants keep a fourth back?

Perhaps the training camp and preseason work of Jalen Simmons and Robert Martin will determine that. Those are the two backs who are in competition to be the fourth back — whether that be on the 53-man roster or practice squad.

Let’s look briefly at each player.

Martin [90-man roster profile] is an undrafted free agent from Rutgers. He was never the starter or the featured back for Rutgers, but did enough to get this chance with the Giants. He finished his Scarlet Knights career with 2,256 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Simmons [90-man roster profile] is also an undrafted player. He spent most of the past two seasons on the practice squad of the Carolina Panthers. The former South Carolina State back is a compactly built 5-foot-8, 220-pounder.