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Position preview: At running back, all eyes on Saquon Barkley

How healthy and productive the star running is will be the big story

NFL: Cleveland Browns Training Camp Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

While the New York Giants fielded one of the worst offenses in the NFL last year, their problems couldn’t be laid at the feet of the running backs.

It was widely assumed that their running game would be dead in the water when Saquon Barkley tore his ACL after averaging just 1.2 yards per carry in the first two weeks of the season. The team hoped Devonta Freeman would right the ship and help stabilize their offense, but he too was injured. So it was a definite surprise when the platoon of Wayne Gallman Jr. and Alfred Morris nearly carried the offense to a NFC East crown.

The Giants invested in their running back position over the course of the 2021 offseason. They signed Devontae Booker to a relatively large deal in free agency and drafted Gary Brightwell in Round 6.

While we know the running game starts up front with the offensive line, have the Giants’ improved their running back room enough to get over the hump?

Initial 90-man roster depth chart

RB: Saquon Barkley (knee - PUP), Devontae Booker, Corey Clement, Alfred Morris, Gary Brightwell, Sandro Platzgummer
FB: Elijhaa Penny, Cullen Gillaspia

53-man roster depth chart

RB: Saquon Barkley (knee), Devontae Booker, Gary Brightwell
FB: Elijhaa Penny, Cullen Gillaspia
Practice Squad: Sandro Platzgummer, Dexter Williams
Injured Reserve: none

Where the running backs stand

Every position group is going to be relatively crowded when training camp opens. But with 90 players on a training camp roster, teams are able to make sure everyone gets practice reps without getting over-worked as well as potentially find gems hidden down their depth chart.

But in reality, most position groups are set before players even report to camp and players down the depth chart are often fighting for one or two roster spots.

And for most of training camp and the preseason, it looked as though the top of the Giants’ running back room was set in stone. Saquon Barkley would be the starter and the only question was when he would make it back onto the field. The big questions with Barkley are when he’ll be on the field, how much he’ll be on the field, and whether he can stay on the field. While Barkley is one of the most exciting players in the NFL, we can’t ignore that he’s had two significant lower-body injuries over the past two seasons. But as long as he is healthy, there’s no question that he’s the starter.

Likewise, free agent addition Devontae Booker was always going to be second on the depth chart — there was little doubt of that in light of the two-year $5.5 million contract to which he was signed.

The intrigue starts with that third spot on the depth chart.

For most of camp and the preseason it looked as though Corey Clement would be the third back. He ran hard and generally picked up solid yardage whenever he touched the ball. However, he saw limited snaps on special teams and had a costly fumble against the New York Jets in the preseason opener.

Rookie Gary Brightwell, on the other hand, didn’t see any snaps in the Giants’ first preseason game, but was a consistent presence on special teams. He seemingly jumped Clement to be the first running back off the bench in the final preseason game and was soon proven to be higher on the final depth chart.

The wildcard in all of this was fullback Elijhaa Penny.

The Giants carried a pair of fullbacks throughout the preseason, which isn’t uncommon, but it was a surprise to see both fullbacks make it to the final roster. It was uncommon for NFL teams to carry multiple fullbacks even before spread concepts took over pro offenses, so seeing two fullbacks on a modern NFL offensive roster is almost bizarre. However, Penny’s success with the ball in his hands in the preseason gave the Giants’ reason to keep both fullbacks.

Penny proved himself a dangerous ball carrier as well as a capable receiver in the preseason. Not only was he effective picking up short yardage on fullback dives, but he averaged 8.5 yards per carry on his six runs against the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots.

Also potentially figuring into the decision to keep two fullbacks are the injuries at the tight end position. The Giants lost Levine Toilolo to injury early on, while Kyle Rudolph continues the process of coming back from his foot surgery and Evan Engram deals with a calf injury. The Giants made heavy use of multiple tight end sets, and they could plan on shifting those snaps to multiple running back formations while their depth at tight end is shaky.

The Giants are, ultimately, a team that believes their path to victory lies on the ground. They want to win with their running game first.