For all the respect and admiration heaped on Eli Manning, many of the younger players on offense, especially the wide receivers and running backs, gravitated last season to the newcomer, Daniel Jones, who was quickly accepted as one of their own.
This made sense. Manning, more than 15 years older than several teammates, in many ways represented Giants Past. Jones was Giants Future, and players in their early or mid-20s were more aligned with Jones than they were with a quarterback nearing 40 years old. Plus, there was not much winning with this group when Manning was directing the huddle.
Saquon Barkley always sounded thrilled to be a part of Manning’s NFL later years, resolutely supportive and appreciative he got to play with a franchise icon. Barkley also formed a near-instant bond with Jones and when the seismic switch was made in Week 3 — Jones in, Manning out — the injection of energy in the building, as short-lived as it turned out to be, was palpable.
Barkley is embarking on his third year with the Giants and for the first time opens up a training camp — a strange and unusual, COVID-19-altered camp — with a new quarterback as the starter.
“Definitely excited for DJ,’’ Barkley said Friday. “We definitely got a lot closer from this point where we are from him being a rookie to us actually hanging out, working out together and stuff. He’s a hard worker, he’s a heck of a player, he’s very talented.
“You just grow, not just saying system-wise but as a player. Being more comfortable from your rookie year to your second year. I know for myself from my first year to my second year how much more comfortable I was just being in the locker room and talking with the guys. That’s where you are going to grow, and you are going to continue to see him grow in that area. He’s a talented player and hard worker and I’m really excited to see what he is going to do this year.’’
There were no missteps off the field for Jones as a rookie and, with the retirement of Manning, the 23-year-old knew he had to take his command of the offense and his job to another level. He hit the weights and gained nearly 10 pounds of muscle. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Jones was able to arrange for throwing sessions with his teammates in Austin, Texas. With no work at the team facility in the spring, these were important get-togethers that helped his receivers and running backs and delighted new coach Joe Judge.
“They were good,’’ receiver Sterling Shepard said. “We were just trying to get down some of the material. Now that we’re here, that’s pretty much all that we’re focused on. All that stuff is behind us. Some of the things we were working on, coach has added some of the little nuances in, different route techniques. Some of the stuff we thought we were doing right, but just fine-tuning those things. We’re really just focused on getting these plays down and getting down what the coaches like and getting on the same page with each other.’’
Teammates notice how their quarterback, especially the young ones, goes about his business. Barkley, a workout warrior, did some lifting with Jones this summer and came away impressed.
“Yeah, I have definitely seen him take up that leadership role,’’ Barkley said. “You can see it through his work ethic. You just know he is taking that step. I am really excited for his growth. I am really excited to see what he is able to do this year.’’
Jones won his first two NFL starts before the season went sour on the Giants. It was not easy on Jones, who could not stop the losing. The expectations for him in year No. 2 are higher.
“Just to continue to do what he’s doing,’’ Shepard said. “He’s going in the right direction. He comes in here and works his butt off every single day. If we keep doing what we’re supposed to do as a unit and he continues to work as hard as he’s been working, I feel like he’ll be doing great.’’