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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — As the “MVP! MVP! MVP!” chants rang out across the Quest Diagnostics Training Center during the New York Giants’ first full-squad practice Thursday, the man those chants were directed at — running back Saquon Barkley — couldn’t help but grin.
“That’s a first,” Barkley later admitted. “I’ve never really heard that chant before.”
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Even though Barkley, a 22-year-old workhorse with a million juke moves and a megawatt smile, is entering only the second season of his NFL career, he already checks off a couple of boxes for what defines an NFL star:
Superb production? Check.
Enormous expectations? Yep.
And the latter has grown in the hours and days since, as the Giants’ receiving corps has absorbed a rapid series of blows in short order. On Thursday, receiver Corey Coleman was lost for the season with a torn ACL. That same day, starting wideout Sterling Shepard fractured his thumb, placing his availability for Week 1 in doubt. And on Saturday, Golden Tate, who signed a $41 million deal this offseason, tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and will be suspended for four games, pending appeal.
That’s a heck of a hit to a receiving corps that many suspect will be weaker following the offseason trade of Odell Beckham Jr. (a star in his own right), one that prompted enough “they’re gonna run Saquon 400 times this year” jokes on Twitter to make Earl Campbell blush. It also made one question Barkley was asked Thursday — whether he thinks a 400-touch season would be counterproductive — particularly prescient.
“I am open to as many that come,” said Barkley, who was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year last season after rushing for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns, and catching 91 passes for 721 yards and four touchdowns.
“Like I have said before, I am willing to take as many touches to help the team win. That’s why I train, that’s why I try to take care of my body, that’s why I take the mindset I take in the offseason.”
And to that end, the 6-foot, 234-pound Barkley — a man who gained fame for doing squats to develop his insanely strong and freakishly large glutes and calves — says he didn’t actually squat as much as he used to this offseason.
“Not now,” Barkley said earlier this month during a taping of the “Yahoo Sports NFL Podcast” when asked if he’s still squatting the way he used to. “In college I was a big squatter. Now, it’s kind of [about] just [doing] efficient movements, things that translate to the football field and injury prevention.
“You kind of have to take that mindset, especially with just the wear and tear your body takes being an NFL back, the amount of touches that you have. You don’t want to put it all on the gas during the offseason.”
Giants coach Pat Shurmur says Barkley — whose 352 touches last seasons ranked second in the NFL behind only Ezekiel Elliott — has adequately prepped himself to again handle the load.
“Yeah, he works out quite a bit — he does everything we ask and more when he’s in the building,” Shurmur told Yahoo Sports this week. “We keep track of some of what they do when they’re away from here, and my understanding is he trains extremely hard.”
Throw in Barkley’s mentality — Shurmur likes to say he has a “generational” spirit — and there’s a belief that Barkley is ready to lead from the front, despite his age.
“You see [it] on the sideline — [he’s] very competitive, very encouraging, and you can see through his play that he’s going to do all he can to help his team win,” Shurmur said. “He leads by example.”
And to that end, one could argue that the best thing he can do for the Giants this season, especially if the question marks surrounding him (from the current quarterback to the future quarterback to the receiving situation) continue to pop up — is to carry the ball over and over again, without complaint.
If things go according to plan, it won’t necessarily come to that.
“I’m fine with being the focal point,” Barkley said. “You can come out every single Sunday and try to stop me and load the box. But I believe in my teammates.”
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