There isn't a more wide-open division in the NFL in 2021 than the NFC East. It's a division that came down to the final weekend of the 2020 season before the Washington Football Team finally emerged as champions—with a 7-9 record.
There are three teams that ostensibly could vie for the crown in 2021. (Sorry, Eagles fans. Maybe in 2022.) Washington has one of the league's best defenses and new weapons on offense in wide receiver Curtis Samuel and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. With Dak Prescott back under center, the Dallas Cowboys should once again field one of the NFL's most electrifying offenses. The New York Giants quietly fielded a top-10 scoring defense and now sport an array of offensive skill-position talent that rivals the Cowboys.
But for the Giants to take the next step in 2021 and compete for a division title, there is one thing that has to happen this year. One absolute must.
The G-Men absolutely, positively have to have a healthy Saquon Barkley lining up behind Daniel Jones once September rolls around.
Because without him, the Giants have absolutely (there's that word again) no chance of making the playoffs.
It has been a good long while since we saw the fourth-year pro on even a practice field; two games into the 2020 season, Barkley suffered a serious injury that included tears of both the ACL and the meniscus in his right knee. The second overall pick in the 2018 draft was a spectator at New York's mandatory minicamp this week, and he noted that he's not entirely sure when he will return to workouts.
"You want to get back there as fast as you can obviously, but you have to be smart," Barkley said, per Steve Serby of the New York Post. "At the end of the day, I want to do the best for my team, not just for a short span but for a long time. Like I said, I have no expectation, no set day when I'm going to be full go."
Unfortunately, the 2020 campaign wasn't the 24-year-old's first experience with injuries at the professional level. He missed three games the season before with a high-ankle sprain. That has led some to question Barkley's durability—a question that Barkley admitted he has asked himself in passing.
However, Barkley said he believes that his injuries were one-offs. Flukes.
"Those are conversations that you have to have with yourself," he said. "But no, there is not a fear. 'Cause at the end of the day … I have this belief you control what you can control. Both those times I've been hurt so far in my NFL career, were things that really nothing I could have done to change. So for me, just continue to work, continue to try to control the things that I can control, and go out there and play free."
Barkley's first season was nothing short of remarkable. He piled up 1,307 rushing yards, averaged 5.0 yards per carry and amassed 11 touchdowns on the ground. He was a threat as a receiver as well, racking up 91 catches for 721 yards and four more scores. Add it all together, and you have over 2,000 total yards and 15 scores, numbers that earned him Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Now, expecting an explosion like that coming off such a major injury isn't really realistic. If Barkley can sniff his 2018 numbers, you can start engraving his name on the Comeback Player of the Year trophy now. But if the Giants are going to be any kind of threat in the NFC East in 2021, the team needs production from Barkley that's at least similar to his 2019 numbers: 1,400 total yards or so and eight to 10 scores.
The Giants made multiple additions in the passing game this year. Big Blue added a No. 1 wide receiver in Kenny Golladay, who has amassed a pair of 1,000-yard seasons in his four years in the NFL. In April, the team used a first-round draft pick on Florida receiver Kadarius Toney, who topped 1,100 total yards with the Gators in 2020. New York also signed veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Combined with holdovers Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram, it's an impressive array of weaponry.
But even more important than all those pass-catchers is having a healthy Barkley to balance them out.
Looking at the barest of statistics, there's not much difference between what the Giants run game looked like with Barkley in 2019 as opposed to 2020 with Wayne Gallman leading the way. Both years, the Giants checked in 19th in the league in rushing. The Giants actually averaged 5.2 more yards per game in 2020 than the year before and had an offensive DVOA on the ground that was 10 spots higher than in 2019, per Football Outsiders.
So, what's the problem?
Well, for starters, Gallman is in San Francisco now, and the cupboard behind Barkley is pretty bare (Devontae Booker, Ryquell Armstead and Corey Clement).
We've also seen what not having Barkley means for young quarterback Daniel Jones, and it isn't pretty.
Gallman is a serviceable NFL back, but he's not the waking nightmare in the open field that Barkley is. Without that to worry about, opposing defenses were free to pin their ears back in the pass rush while playing back in coverage.
The result was a substantial step backward from Jones in his second professional season. His passing touchdowns plummeted from 24 in 2019 to just 11 last year. His sack percentage went from 7.6 to 9.1. His air yards per attempt and passer rating both dropped as well. And while New York's passing DVOA in 2019 wasn't good (26th), it was even worse last season (28th).
Many of those statistical drops aren't that precipitous. And Golladay's arrival will no doubt be welcomed by New York's young quarterback. But this isn't an offense that heads into the 2021 season with much margin for error, if any.
"The bottom line is that the Giants' offensive line is a massive question mark," he said. "They need their young players to develop and their veterans to provide career years just to rank in the middle of the pack for 2021."
That line needs every bit of help it can get—help like the moment's hesitation that a back of Barkley's caliber can create on a play fake.
Frankly, even with a healthy and effective Barkley, the playoffs could be a stretch for this Giants team. Dallas has a significantly better offense and a defense that may not be that far behind New York's. Washington is the defending NFC East champ, with a far superior defense and an offense under Fitzpatrick that won't be far behind the Giants.
But for the G-Men to have any chance whatsoever of seeing the postseason for the first time since 2016, the team needs its best offensive player on the field and at as close to 100 percent as possible.
For the Giants in 2021, it's Barkley or bust.