Saquon Barkley faces obstacles in crucial return to Giants

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Those tree-trunk quads are alive and well, and still massive in the most recent videos.

There is Saquon Barkley, stutter-stepping with those fast feet in the sand at the beach, with volleyball nets in the background. There is Barkley, working his legs and core muscles, splashing but certainly not frolicking in a pool. Any infiltration of doubt that might creep in about his return gets washed away with the sight of him working painstakingly to get right and get back.

The fate of the Giants in 2021 does not hinge on one specific person, but honing in on Barkley is not an unwise place to start. Consider this: Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, in their first season with the Giants, were given five quarters with Barkley, the centerpiece of the entire attack and the new face of the franchise, before he went down with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament on the first play of the second quarter of a Sept. 20 loss at Chicago. That is it. That is almost nothing.

It is almost easy to forget the hubbub surrounding Barkley when he was taken with the No. 2-overall pick in the 2018 draft then, remarkably, lived up to the hype throughout an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year debut season. That seems so long ago — for the Giants, for Barkley and for a league that endured the loss of one of its youngest and brightest stars.

When the Giants open up training camp July 27, do not expect Barkley to take a full load. He will be brought along slowly, and it is likely his impatience will show at times — as he thirsts to get back on the field, and the coaching and medical staffs refuse to immediately hydrate that desire.

Barkley had surgery Oct. 30, 40 days after going down with the injury, the delay in deference to a plan to reduce the swelling in the knee while also allowing Barkley to strengthen the knee to accelerate the post-surgery healing process. The procedure repaired the torn ACL and also his partially torn right meniscus.

The regular-season opener, Sept. 12 against the Broncos at MetLife Stadium, is 10 months and two weeks after Barkley’s surgery. That is exactly in the wheelhouse for the time frame for rehabilitating these injuries, and the Giants believe their 24-year old running back will be on the field for that opener.

Getting back and returning to form, for a running back, is not easy with this particular injury and far from guaranteed. But it certainly has been done before. But never without blood, sweat and tears along the way, as well as realistic expectations as the player is reacclimated to the violent world of football with a rebuilt knee.

“I think it’s mostly his change of direction you’ll be looking at, but it’s also how explosive he looks,’’ Tiki Barber, the Giants’ all-time leading rusher, told The Post. “One of the things I always remember about Saquon is when he puts his foot down and he’s ready to go he’s out the door. I think his explosion will be something to keep an eye on.’’

Barkley will look sculpted when he gets to training camp but, as he and the Giants have learned, that invulnerable-looking body must be protected. Adrian Peterson is the patron saint of all running backs coming back from ACL surgery — he went down late in the 2011 season and, eight months later, embarked on an overwhelming 2,097-yard rushing season to earn the NFL’s NFL’s MVP award. Peterson at the age of 36 ran for 604 yards in 2020 for the Lions.

Peterson, though, is a physical freak and an exception — an exception Barkley, another physical marvel, hopes to emulate. Jamaal Charles, and Knowshon Moreno put together 1,000-yard seasons after ACL tears and Frank Gore after two ACL tears in college at Miami compiled 16,000 rushing yards — third on the all-time NFL list — and played last season for the Jets at 38 years old.

Other running backs — Rashard Mendenhall, Ronnie Brown, Edgerrin James, Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson — did not regain their full athletic gifts post-ACL surgery.

Will Barkley’s renowned speed and ability to escape any and all defenders be lessened in any way? Barber believes Barkley post-surgery will be slowed down, but not necessarily in terms of quickness and acceleration.

“It’s just a fundamental difference in your body, so I think it will slow him down and that will be a good thing,’’ Barber said. “Will he be as fast? I don’t know, it’s a good question, and I don’t know if it matters, to be honest with you. Being a running back is not about straightaway speed like a wide receiver. It’s more elusiveness and even if he does slow down, if he gets into the open field he’s still gonna be a guy who can take it the distance.’’

The waiting game continues for Barkley. But not for long.

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