Saquon Barkley and the Impossible Hype Machine

Giants running back Saquon Barkley working out during training camp in July.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — You have probably heard the Giants have a new running back. You may already be one of his 975,000 followers on Instagram. Perhaps you know he can squat 650 pounds and hurdle 6-foot defenders. Maybe you saw him — a lot of him — in ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue.

His name, Saquon Barkley, has become more than a preseason buzzword. It is bordering on an infatuation.

And so the N.F.L.’s annual hype-a-thon — also known as training camp — has been kicked into overdrive at Quest Diagnostics Training Center, where the Giants are struggling to temper expectations for a rookie out of Penn State who is already reaching mythic status from a fan base eager to forget last year’s 3-13 season.

After all, in June, Barkley’s No. 26 was the best-selling jersey in the N.F.L. This was before one of the team’s owners, John Mara, called him the most glorified rookie the franchise has had since Lawrence Taylor. But it was after Dave Gettleman, the Giants’ general manager, said that Barkley’s skill set was as though he had been “touched by the hand of God.”

Such lofty praise for an untested prospect is nothing new in the N.F.L., where practice plays are regularly charted and analyzed — by fans. But the excitement over Barkley, who is expected to make his debut in the Giants’ preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night at MetLife Stadium, has reached almost absurd proportions: On Monday, two reporters from Philadelphia-area newspapers were on hand to cover his practice, and there is now a Twitter account devoted to the size of his quads.

“Saquon is everything that you want in a back,” guard Patrick Omameh said.

Those quads, by the way, are enormous: reportedly 28 inches around, making Barkley’s torso appear as if supported by file cabinets. Odell Beckham Jr., the wide receiver, has been calling him “Saquads.” He needed a custom tailor for his draft-day suit.

“They’re like the size of my waist,” quarterback Eli Manning said in a radio interview in June.

Also already deemed out-of-this-world: his speed, his strength, his determination to be great, his inquisitiveness, his investment strategies. James Bettcher, the team’s defensive coordinator, recently compared him to David Johnson, the first-team All-Pro running back for the Arizona Cardinals. Giants Coach Pat Shurmur said Barkley reminded him of Brian Westbrook, a member of the Philadelphia Eagles’ Hall of Fame.

“I honestly believe he’s ahead of his time,” tight end Evan Engram said.

All this might be true. Some worry, however, that the expectations being heaped on the 21-year-old’s shoulders might be impossible for anyone to live up to.

“He was the second pick in the draft,” Shurmur said. “Certainly, we know what we expect from him. He’s also a rookie, and there’s certain things that you have to do. The good news is, he understands what he has to do and he’s doing it.”

Carl Banks, a former linebacker and a current commentator on Giants’ broadcasts, said in an interview that his advice for Barkley would be to embrace the hype that is coming his way. Because it is coming for a reason.

“You’ve been good for a long time,” Banks said. “You didn’t just get good overnight. Just embrace it and be who you are. He’s not sneaking up on anybody, where’d this guy come from. He’s been good. He does what he does.”

Banks said Barkley would benefit from coming from a big-time program, Penn State, where expectations are always high. But Penn State also has a history of producing running back disappointments, such as Curtis Enis, Ki-Jana Carter and Blair Thomas, all players drafted in the top five who then failed to live up to their hype.

Barkley, according to coaches and teammates, has been nothing but a consummate professional obsessed with learning to play at this level. He ordered film of the former Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to learn how to run behind a fullback. He has sought to establish a relationship with every member of the offensive line. He asks questions of Manning in almost every huddle.

“I’ve been impressed,” Manning said.

The Giants’ coaching staff has been working to keep Barkley from trying to make too much out of every play, which is not easy for a player who averaged 5.7 yards per carry and 11.7 yards per reception for his career at Penn State.

There have been flashes of his brilliant abilities. At practice on Monday, he largely stayed on the sideline, as the team has been monitoring his repetitions during drills. But on one screen pass, he burst to the outside and up the sideline, producing the loudest cheers of the afternoon from fans.

He said he was trying to “take every rep that I get and try to maximize it to the best that I can; just try to be at the right spot where I need to be.”

His goal for Thursday’s preseason opener: make no mistakes.

“I’m going to try to stay away from that,” Barkley said.

Striving for perfection. The expectations might be even higher.

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