Sports

It’s Saquon Barkley or bust for the Giants at running back

Leading into the July 27 opening of Giants training camp, The Post will analyze 11 position groups based on personnel, strengths, weaknesses and key depth chart battles. Today’s look-in: Running backs.

Overview

It all begins, and perhaps ends, with the health and return to form of Saquon Barkley. The Giants patched together a credible rushing attack in 2020 without their star, averaging 110 yards per game to rank 19th in the NFL. The guys who put in the work last year — Wayne Gallman, Alfred Morris, Devonta Freeman, Dion Lewis — are all purged from the roster. Their replacements are not exactly household names, so it is Barkley or bust here. He has to get back in sync with a young offensive line, take the yards that present themselves and rid himself of a habit, at times, to look for the big-hitter rather than the shorter gain.

Personnel

Saquon Barkley, Devontae Booker, Corey Clement, Gary Brightwell, Taquan Mizzell, Sandro Platzgummer, Eli Penny, Cullen Gillaspia.

Giants
Saquon Barkley
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

Rundown

Most athletes who incur torn anterior cruciate ligaments and undergo reconstructive knee surgery make it back and return to form, or at least resemble a close facsimile of themselves.

Barkley went down with his torn right ACL on Sept. 20, which was Week 2 last season, and should be ready to roll once this season starts. That he also had a partially torn meniscus in his right knee could complicate the situation. At his best, Barkley is a terror with the ball in his hands as a runner or a receiver, a truly uncommon weapon, and the Giants need every ounce of that talent, as the offense without him in 2020 was anemic.

It remains to be seen how much of a load he can carry, especially early It also remains to be seen if Booker is the answer as the No. 2 back. Booker, 29, never broke through in three years with the Broncos or last season with the Raiders. His most productive season was his rookie year, 2016, when he rushed for 682 yards, though he had the lowest average (3.5 yards per carry) of his career. His signing, for two years and $5.5 million, was a curious one and it needs to pan out, as Barkley cannot do it by himself.

Clement has talent and some big-game experience from his time with the Eagles. Brightwell is a rookie sixth-round pick from Arizona whose immediate contribution might be on special teams.

One more on Barkley: He has to anchor in and become an improved pass-protector. For someone so solid and so thick in the lower body, he caved in too often when facing pressure in the pocket.

Camp combat

The greatest competition could be Barkley versus himself. He knows his body better than anyone and he has worked like a demon in his rehabilitation to make sure his comeback is a smashing success. Barkley has to rid his mind of the hesitancy that almost always accompanies these types of injury comebacks and also has to make sure he listens to the Giants’ medical experts and takes things slow and steady this summer.

There figures to be a two-man duel for the fullback job. Penny was a favorite of the Pat Shurmur regime. Gillaspia was signed to a one-year deal, so he has no guarantees to make the team. In 25 games for the Texans, Gillapsia touched the ball one time. Whoever blocks better and is more effective on special teams will stay around.

Giants
Corey Clement
Bill Kostroun

Position potential

During his record-breaking rookie year (1,307 rushing yards, 91 receptions, 15 total touchdowns) Barkley’s ceiling seemed limitless. That was in 2018. He has to reestablish himself and, at 24 years old, he is still so young he can turn the ACL nightmare into a blip on his radar screen.

When healthy, he is a guy who needs to have the ball in his hands 20-plus times per game, whether handing it to him or passing it to him. If he can handle that sort of workload, the Giants will gladly sign up for the results that follow. There was no real interest in re-signing Gallman (team-leading 682 rushing yards in 2020), who went to the 49ers, so Booker had better be able to get the job done, as Barkley will need breaks during games. Quarterback Daniel Jones was second on the team in rushing in 2020 with 432 yards. If he is second on the team again this season, something is wrong. The Giants need Barkley at well over 1,000 yards and Booker to be more than a guy on the field just so Barkley can get a breather.

Next up: Specialists.

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