Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley staying healthy, leading the Giants into the playoffs and playing so well that lucrative new contracts are sure to follow was considered improbable, implausible and perhaps even impossible when this season kicked off several months ago.
The individual who brought Jones and Barkley to the Giants is thrilled — but not surprised — it has worked out this way.
“I’m proud as hell, they both persevered and fought through,” Dave Gettleman, the former Giants general manager, told The Post on Friday. “You talk about mental toughness, for Saquon to fight through those injuries and not getting a contract and being forced to play out his fifth year, he had to have a lot of confidence in himself, show some mental toughness.
“And Daniel, the same thing. He’s in his third system in four years. Of course I’m proud of them. I’m really happy for them. It’s not because it justifies me. It justifies them.”
More than anything else, the success or failure of high draft picks defines a general manager’s tenure with a team. Gettleman’s first selection with the Giants was Barkley, taken No. 2 overall in 2018. No one questioned Barkley’s ability, but the value of a running back as a top-five pick was certainly a worthwhile debate.
A year later, it was no secret that the Giants were in the quarterback market, with the aging franchise icon Eli Manning on the downside of his 16-year career. It was not considered a strong draft for quarterbacks in 2019 and Gettleman defied most draft prognostications by taking Jones, out of Duke, at No. 6 overall.
Barkley was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2018, but injuries to his ankle and knee (a torn ACL limited him to only two games in 2020) dulled much of his luster. Jones, only two games into his rookie season, replaced Manning and showed great promise before a new coaching staff and new offensive systems, plus nagging injuries and a neck issue down the stretch in 2021 spawned questions of whether he was the answer at the most important position on the field.
Through it all, both players endured in 2022, thrived under first-year head coach Brian Daboll and carried the Giants to a record of 9-6-1 and their first playoff berth since 2016 heading into the regular-season finale against the Eagles.
“It’s been proven time and time again, you draft a kid in the first round, you’re the New York Giants or the New York Jets, he better be able to handle New York,” Gettleman said. “Because it’s not easy.
“New York’s a tough place and it’s a tough place when things aren’t going right. I’m just proud they stuck to it and not been bothered by things that are written and said. I’m thrilled for those kids. They’re good people. Good young men.”
After four years as the Giants’ GM, Gettleman saw the writing on the wall and opted for retirement after the team went 4-13 in 2021, triggering a housecleaning that sent Joe Judge packing and ushered in Daboll and a new general manager to lead another rebuild. .
Gettleman, 71, splits his time between his homes in New Jersey and Cape Cod. His fingerprints are all over the current Giants roster. Defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence (first round, 2019) and left tackle Andrew Thomas (first round, 2020) are centerpieces and budding stars. Safeties Xavier McKinney (second round, 2020) and Julian Love (fourth round, 2019) are fixtures on the back end of the defense. Azeez Ojulari (second round, 2021) is a rising pass rusher. The trade with the Jets for Leonard Williams imported a versatile interior defensive lineman and the free agent signing of Graham Gano provided Daboll with one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers.
“Am I happy the guys are doing well? I’m thrilled,” Gettleman said. “Daniel and Saquon and Andrew Thomas and Dexter, where do you want me to stop? I’m thrilled they’re all playing well. They’re maturing as players and they’re getting coached.”
There were notable Gettleman misfires, of course: DeAndre Baker and Kadarius Toney in the draft, Kenny Golladay in free agency, and salary cap miscalculations. Any time a top executive leaves behind a young quarterback with promise, though, it is a résumé-enhancer.
“Daniel hasn’t changed,” Gettleman said. “He’s always been hard-working, athletic, tough, smart. We all have to learn our craft. Sad thing, in the society we live in right now and the culture we have, there’s no patience for anything.
“I’ve always been confident with the pick. You look at the quarterbacks that have been brought in, that are getting drafted high, people were just taking shots and taking chances. A lot of GMs and owners acquiesce to the media and public opinion. You take a guy with the sixth pick in the draft, if you don’t believe he’s gonna be successful, what planet, what are you doing? I’ve never backed off of the pick, never once did I ever shake my head and say, ‘Boy, did I f–k up.’ Not once.
“If you were gonna bet money on a guy, that’s a guy you would bet on.”