EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — At his locker after practice on Wednesday, Saquon Barkley was focused on three things.
The New York Giants’ star running back was preparing for the Dallas Cowboys, whom the Giants host this week on “Sunday Night Football.” He was mulling his 5-year-old daughter, Jada, starting school for the first time this year. How had she grown up so fast? And Barkley was strategizing how he will coach youth soccer, even accepting tips.
What Barkley wasn’t focused on: his contract status.
The second overall selection of the 2018 NFL Draft will play this season on a franchise tag, after failing to reach a long-term deal with the Giants by the July 17 negotiating deadline. Barkley held out of OTAs, minicamp and nearly training camp as his discontent with negotiations grew.
Ultimately, the Giants agreed to sweeten his $10.1 million franchise tag with roughly $1 million in incentives and a $2 million signing bonus, per multiple reports. Barkley reported to camp and now prepares for his second-straight season on an expiring deal.
He wants 2023 to display how productive he can be and how much tread he has left. But he insists the finances are not top of mind.
“Obviously, my contract stuff and everything was public and talked about,” Barkley said. “I would turn on the TV, and I’m seeing myself being talked about. But for me, all that’s in the past. Like I said, once I made that mindset to come here, you’ve got to be mature about it. No hard feelings about it.
“So now, my back’s against the wall again. I’ve got to go out there and prove it. I’m going to go out there and play my heart out, compete at a high level and do what I do best, not only for myself, but for my teammates.”
Can Saquon Barkley get the Giants deal he wants?
Barkley did what he does best at a high level last year in the Giants’ first season under head coach Brian Daboll. The two-time Pro Bowler rushed for 1,312 yards and 10 touchdowns, adding another 338 yards in the receiving game. The 1,650 all-purpose yards were Barkley’s best mark since his rookie year; 4.4 yards per carry, his most efficient mark since 2019. And as importantly: Barkley was healthy enough to play the entire season — again, something he had not managed since 2018.
He believes last year reestablished his role and ceiling as a pro.
“I kind of see last year as like a rookie year (of) being back on the scene and showing what I’m capable of doing,” Barkley said. “Now, how can I take it to another level? Whether that’s in between the tackles, outside of tackles, catching the ball, running routes.
“I want to be able to take it another level and be special.”
The Giants believe Barkley is well positioned to improve his game from last year. Not only will the group enjoy familiarity with Daboll’s principles for the first time, but also the Giants upgraded their stable of weapons this offseason. Tight end Darren Waller, who could function as their No. 1 receiving target, highlights an offseason acquisition group that also includes free-agent signing Parris Campbell and third-round rookie Jalin Hyatt. Speed was an emphasis. Barkley believes the defenses that have skewed their attention so heavily his way the last five years now load the box at their own peril.
It’s too early to know whether Barkley will feel the influence of that offensive balance more via open lanes or reduced opportunities. As much in question: whether even a third Pro Bowl season can earn him the contract he seeks.
Chaotic RB market will be on display when Giants host Cowboys
The running back market has fallen into chaos this offseason, the Las Vegas Raiders’ Josh Jacobs and Indianapolis Colts’ Jonathan Taylor among those who did not participate in training camp due to contract disputes.
Jacobs ultimately followed Barkley’s example, refusing to sign the franchise tag and eventually reaching a reworked one-year deal worth up to $12 million on Aug. 26. Taylor, who enters the final year of his rookie deal, took issue with the Colts declining to even offer him an extension, and went so far as receiving permission to seek a trade in August. No trade partner presented a deal that enticed the Colts, and Taylor will now miss at least the first four weeks of the season while on the physically unable to perform list.
Barkley said he’s followed Taylor’s dispute “not really that close, to be honest.” He’s “well aware of anything that goes on in the league … but for me, I kind of just stay focused on my own lane.”
Closer to that lane this week will be the franchised running back competing against Barkley’s Giants on "Sunday Night Football," Tony Pollard the lone tagged back to sign his deal without fanfare. Pollard had less leverage than his counterparts, coming off a postseason leg fracture and a rookie contract in which he was behind Ezekiel Elliott on the depth chart. And yet, his efficiency has been outstanding.
Pollard averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season, amassing 1,378 all-purpose yards and 12 total touchdowns. That was with Elliott receiving 248 touches. What can Pollard do as the top back?
“I think just ‘evolve’ is the word that you can go for,” quarterback Dak Prescott, speaking in partnership with Lowe’s Home Team, told Yahoo Sports. “He's done an amazing job of leading that core of running backs just this whole offseason and into training camp. And I'm excited.
“Obviously, he's coming off an injury and I'm sure there's a lot of doubt. But understanding the way that he approached his rehab and understanding the player that he is that takes care of his body and just cares a lot about the game and his teammates, he's gonna have a hell of a year.”
That’s Barkley’s goal, too — winning the season and each step along the way, hoping that’s ultimately sufficient to earn him his payday. He spoke more publicly over the summer about his frustration with the Giants’ valuation of him. But as the season arrives, he plans to compartmentalize his long-term goals.
“I think I would be doing a disservice to myself to get too caught up in my future and worrying about what’s going to happen and being a Giant for life,” Barkley said. “I’ve got to live in the moment. I’ve got to live in the now.
“Let the rest take care of itself.”