Dialed-In Odell, Electric Saquon Have the Giants Back on the Right Track

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 7, 2018

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham gestures toward fans during NFL football training camp, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.  New coach. New weapons. New systems. Everything sounds and feels new in Giants training camp. Even some familiar old faces.

       

The New Leader

It's summer in New Jersey, and Odell Beckham Jr. is running routes and catching passes. He's practicing at full speed, and Beckham at full speed is fuller than anyone else. He isn't taking part in every drill, which is to be expected for a veteran superstar coming off a major injury.

But wait, Beckham is also fielding kickoffs. He's dribbling footballs like soccer balls and horsing around with Sterling Shepard between reps. He's even taking time to kick a short field goal during a lull between drills last week.

Beckham looks like the world's happiest camper. And he sounds that way, too.

"I remember not being able to walk at all," Beckham said while meeting with the press for the first time since he severely fractured his ankle in October. "Being able to be back on the field doing what I love is truly an amazing thing." 

Beckham spoke about tuning out the noise, letting his contract situation "work itself out" (he's in the final year of his rookie deal), getting on the same page with new head coach Pat Shurmur and the new Giants coaching staff and changing his mindset as a result of last year's injury. Even with his agent watching practices from the shade of Giants headquarters last week and reports about what the Giants may soon be offering him, he was all about the football, not the drama or the money.

If you've ever heard a State of the Union-style press conference by a controversy magnet like Beckham, then you've heard it all before.

But seeing Beckham is believing.

"He's very engaged," Shurmur said Thursday. "He's very energetic. And he practices very hard."

"He's hungry, man," Shepard said. "He's like a different animal."

Beckham might even be acting a little, just a little, like a team leader.

"He's helping everybody out," said Khalid Raymond, a practice squad lifer who suddenly has a chance to make the squad (via Matt Lombardo of NJ Advance Media). "He might not be in the front of the room, but he's given me at least 10-15 tips this summer."

In a league where Julio Jones reportedly threatens a holdout with three years left on his contract, Dez Bryant is rage-tweeting instead of running routes and even Kelvin Benjamin feels empowered to take shots at his former quarterback, Beckham has suddenly become Employee of the Month.

Plus, he's still uncoverable. And he's far from the only weapon Giants opponents will have to worry about this year.

       

The New 'Receiver'

Saquon Barkley is in the backfield. No, waithe motions out of the backfield and splits wide left as a receiver. He runs a slant route and beats veteran cornerback Janoris Jenkins for an easy catch. 

Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft, moves like a wide receiver when releasing from the line and hauling in the pass. Except wide receivers normally don't weigh 230 pounds and finish fourth in Heisman Trophy voting as a running back.

If the Giants' best cornerback is having trouble with Barkley, which opposing defender is going to cover him when he slips out of the backfield? And if Barkley is drawing opponents' best defenders in coverage, who is going to handle Beckham? And if some team finds a way to cope with both Barkley and Beckham, there are some fellows named Shepard and Evan Engram to worry about.

"It disrupts a lot of the defensive plan," Engram said of Barkley sliding from the backfield to wide receiver. "A safety could be over me. Then when [Barkley] goes out wide, they might bump the safety out and a linebacker might be lined up on me. I'm pretty happy right there."

Giants fans, fantasy football owners and anyone who loves watching football teams score touchdowns have been dreaming of the Beckham-Barkley potential since the draft. But training camp has a way of tempering expectations, because NFL coaches have a knack for forcing versatile new weapons into conventional, predictable roles.

That hasn't happened in East Rutherford this summer. Barkley, like Beckham, has taken limited reps as coaches try to avoid overwhelming the rookie. But the reps he has taken reveal that the Giants didn't draft the all-purpose mismatch nightmare thinking: Let's run him off tackle 25 times with some swing passes sprinkled in for "creativity."

The new offense also has the players on their toes.

"It's a lot more responsibility," Engram said. "A lot more versatility, which I like, which the whole tight end room can appreciate. I'm asked to be in a lot more different spots."

"You have to know what to do at every position," Shepard said. "You're not just a slot receiver. You have to know every route."

There was lots of optimism about the Giants offense last offseason as well, with the team coming off a playoff appearance, Engram and Brandon Marshall new to the fold and Beckham making brief practice cameos between injuries and intrigues. But the Giants offense proved shockingly easy to contain at the start of last season, and by Thanksgiving, Tavarres King, Roger Lewis and Orleans Darkwa were in the starting lineup. And that was before the Geno Smith fiasco.

This year, the Giants have more to be optimistic about than new faces and formations. 

          

The New Workplace

Shurmur takes a moment during practice to engage with Beckham and Shepard during one of their lighthearted chat sessions. A Giants head coach and Beckham (plus Shepard), casually communicating like any other supervisor and indispensable employee around the water cooler? Who could have imagined it?

Pat Shurmur has shown an ability to connect with his players in his second go-round as a head coach.
Pat Shurmur has shown an ability to connect with his players in his second go-round as a head coach.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

"It's great to have a coach who's gonna meet up with the players and who's real in touch with the players," Shepard said. "That's good to have."

Tom Coughlin was never quite the angry grandpa he was lampooned as when he coached the Giants, but he was not really in sync with the players, especially at the end of his tenure. Ben McAdoo started out as an intellectual Chip Kelly Lite and stopped just short of purposely brainstorming ways to lose the locker room before he was mercy-fired. Shurmur isn't exactly Captain Charisma in press conferences, but the players are responding to him. At least, the most important player is.

"It's just been phenomenal to come in here every day," Beckham said. "It's almost like you've been given a new workplace, and you love it.

"He makes it fun for us. He's done a great job. He's got everyone doing what we're supposed to be doing."

Shurmur's coaching resume was unremarkable before he coordinated Case Keenum and the Vikings offense to the NFC Championship Game last season. He directed some Rams offenses in the late 2000s that are best forgotten, helmed the Browns through the Brandon Weeden-Trent Richardson epoch and then mopped up the Kelly era for the Eagles. Shurmur was once an Andy Reid assistant, but what NFL head coach these days wasn't?

Maybe Shurmur is the Goldilocks Zone coach the Giants have needed since Coughlin started losing track of his challenge flag: old-school enough to prevent the locker room revolts that plagued last season, yet innovative enough to keep players invigorated and opponents from guessing the plays when the offense breaks the huddle.

Or maybe the whole organization had to experience last year to realize how bad things can be. In turn, they're ready to just go out on the field and love the game again.

          

The New Expectations

Engram rejects the notion that Super-Bowl-or-bust expectations doomed the Giants last year.

"We weren't running around yelling 'Super Bowl,'" he said. "I wouldn't really say we were distracted or caught up in that."

Engram may have forgotten Jason Pierre-Paul's speculation that the 2017 Giants could go undefeated. Or he may have misdiagnosed the overall organizational urgency after two years of free-agent spending sprees. The 2017 Giants thought they were a contender, and when things went sour, the finger-pointing and blame-passing went supernova.

It's easy to forget that Beckham, the lazy person's criticism beacon, was a non-participant in last year's meltdown. He was dealing with the after-effects of a gruesome ankle fracture during all of the teammate bashing and Eli benching.

Though his contract situation hangs over the franchise, Odell Beckham has shown a new sense of leadership among his teammates this summer.
Though his contract situation hangs over the franchise, Odell Beckham has shown a new sense of leadership among his teammates this summer.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

"I literally watched my world feel like it turned upside down," Beckham said. "Things went wrong, things went sideways. There was a lot of pain that I went through over the past 10 months."

Beckham looks unburdened this summer, though, as he dashes through drills and yuks it up with teammates. So do the Giants.

Still, the reality is that these Giants are not expected to win a Super Bowl this year, and they won't.

But after a 3-13 death march, they are going to be fun to watch. And they may have some fun themselves. There's value in taking a little pressure off while re-engaging and refocusing.

The Giants' future belongs to Beckham, Barkley and Shurmur. So far, it's off to a refreshing, encouraging, exciting start.

       

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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