Giants' 'Hard Knocks' takeaways: Malik Nabers piques interest at combine in episode 2


Saquon Barkley’s departure from the Giants is clearly the biggest storyline in the eyes of the producers of “Hard Knocks: Offseason with the New York Giants.” That’s understandable because Barkley has star power, and the Giants’ decision to let him walk in free agency to the rival Philadelphia Eagles is a juicy topic.

I’ll get to Barkley in this review of the second episode of the series, but in the interest of mixing it up, let’s first focus on a player who is currently on the Giants’ roster:

Getting to know Nabers

It shouldn’t be surprising that the Giants ultimately used the No. 6 pick on LSU wide receiver Malik Nabers. Coaches don’t get the chance to evaluate college prospects until after the season, so it was clear that coach Brian Daboll had just had his first extended look at Nabers’ film during the combine. It was love at first sight.

“I watched that Nabers dude,” Daboll told general manager Joe Schoen. “Dude’s a baller.”

It was evident from the pre-combine meeting, during which scouts gave “Cliffs Notes” overviews on the makeup of prospects, that the Giants had some questions that needed to be answered about Nabers.

“Highly passionate, highly competitive kid,” area scout Scott Hamel said. “Loves football. He will train hard. Plays with a big-time chip on his shoulder. He’s a guy that always wanted the most targets. You’ll hear about it if he’s not getting his targets. We need to get around this kid and see if we can work with him because there is a lot to the personality.”

These internal staff meetings have been a highlight of the first two episodes. And including some potential red flags with the player the Giants picked lends credibility to the show. The Giants weren’t alone in having questions about how Nabers’ intense competitiveness will manifest when things aren’t going well.

Hamel’s scouting report set up Daboll to spearhead the Giants’ 18-minute interview with Nabers at the combine. When Daboll asked Nabers how he handles not being involved early in games, the LSU star candidly said, “Pretty tough.”

Daboll expressed appreciation for Nabers’ desire to get the ball and his competitiveness. Daboll, whose temperament has become a hot topic, acknowledged he loses it, too. But Daboll explained it’s necessary “to learn how to harness that good.”

Nabers is obviously the type of player Daboll likes. Stefon Diggs has a similar personality, and Daboll had a great relationship with the volatile receiver in Buffalo.

Assistant general manager Brandon Brown pointed out to Schoen that dominant receivers typically aren’t “choir boys.” Brown noted that his only concern is how the quarterback will handle an outspoken wide receiver. Schoen answered that Daniel Jones loves Nabers, but it was interesting that Brown prefaced his point by saying, “Whoever the QB is.”

That’s not the only time in the first two episodes that a prominent member of the front office alluded to Jones potentially not being the starting quarterback. Director of player personnel Tim McDonnell mentioned in the premiere that “the quarterback, if it’s Daniel, depends on the run game.”

Testing the quarterbacks

The uncertainty about Jones’ future dovetailed with the Giants’ scrutiny of the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft class. Combine interviews with No. 1 pick Caleb Williams, No. 2 pick Jayden Daniels, No. 3 pick Drake Maye and No. 10 pick J.J. McCarthy were shown during this episode.

It was clear how much Daboll enjoyed grilling quarterbacks in this setting. Hamel noted in the pre-combine meeting that it would be important to put Daniels on the spot to get a feel for his recall. So Daboll put Daniels through a 400-level quarterback class and then asked how the Heisman Trophy winner would deal with adversity. As Daniels was halfway through an answer about the importance of his family, Daboll interrupted and asked him to recite the play call he had learned moments earlier. Daniels almost nailed “Gun trolley right 64 house X in.”

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Watching Daboll break down all elements of quarterback play with the prospects provided a glimpse of how challenging the position is and why he’s regarded as a QB guru.

Schoen mentioned how their scouting process differs for quarterbacks because the position is so important and the right wiring is crucial. The combine was a good first glimpse, but hopefully, we’ll see even more of Daboll putting quarterbacks to the test in pre-draft workouts and meetings.

Giant for life?

It’s been clear in the first two episodes that Schoen didn’t think Barkley would have a robust market. Schoen certainly had no interest in competing with the three-year, $37.8 million contract Barkley got from the Eagles. But Schoen seemed to be hoping he could retain Barkley if the price point were lower.

The only way to know Barkley’s market was to let him hit free agency. That was a wise strategy and one that was proposed here early in the offseason.

Schoen was keenly aware that more damage could be done if he made an offer that Barkley deemed disrespectful. By letting Barkley test the market, Schoen at least kept the door open to make a competing offer if the running back didn’t find a big payday elsewhere.

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Schoen tried to hit some sentimental notes with agent Ed Berry, mentioning Barkley’s repeated desire to be a “Giant for life” and the possibility of landing in the team’s Ring of Honor with a few more seasons in New York. But there wasn’t much warmth in the Schoen-Barkley relationship after last year’s failed extension negotiations, so any appeal to emotions failed to connect.

It’s interesting that Schoen called Barkley directly after speaking to Berry. After some painfully awkward small talk, Schoen expressed similar sentiments to Barkley that he had previously mentioned to Berry. They left the conversation with an agreement that Barkley would circle back to the Giants before signing elsewhere, so it’ll be interesting to see how the first day of free agency plays out in a future episode.

Planting a seed for a draft trade

I’ve been on guard throughout this process for any airbrushing of what happened this offseason. This version of “Hard Knocks” is so different from other editions, mostly because instead of airing week-to-week, this covers past events that have been (mostly) well-documented.

There are insights provided by this access that reporters don’t have, but the big stories have been covered exhaustively. So something like the Giants’ attempts to trade up for a quarterback can’t be ignored completely, even if it will be possible to shape the narrative based on what’s included and excluded from the show.

With that in mind, it was refreshing to see footage of Schoen’s preliminary contact with the Patriots regarding the No. 3 pick. Schoen’s conversation with Patriots executive Eliot Wolf demonstrated how vague trade talks tend to be in the early stages. But the show acknowledged Schoen’s interest in potentially trading up. There was no word on a specific target, but it seemingly would be impossible to avoid disclosing who the Giants were interested in if they could have swung the trade.

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No trade up to get a quarterback in the draft means Daniel Jones remains the Giants’ starter as he returns from a knee injury. (Al Bello / Getty Images)

Quick hits

• Schoen has been an active trader as a GM, and his meeting with Wolf shows that he wants to at least have a chance to be involved in any deal. It helps that he has close friendships with other GMs, particularly Buffalo’s Brandon Beane and Carolina’s Dan Morgan. This is a big difference from predecessor Dave Gettleman, who didn’t seem to have the same connections around the league.

• The discussion about defensive tackle Christian Wilkins as a potential free-agent target intensified in this week’s episode. Schoen asked Brown and director of pro scouting Chris Rossetti if they would sign up for Wilkins at $22 million per year.

Wilkins ended up blowing away that projection, securing a four-year, $110 million contract ($27.5 million per year) from the Raiders. Still, it’s fascinating that the Giants were seriously considering paying another defensive tackle top dollar to line up next to Dexter Lawrence, who is making $22.5 million per year.

The Giants instead landed on a trade for outside linebacker Brian Burns, who then signed a five-year, $141 million contract. So Burns is making only $700,000 more per year than Wilkins. Of course, the big difference is the Giants had to part with second- and fifth-round picks to acquire Burns in a trade instead of signing Wilkins as a free agent.

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• The Burns trade talks got more serious in his episode, with Schoen updating Brown on his negotiations with Morgan. Morgan provided an accurate desired salary range for Burns of $28-29 million per year. It will be interesting to see how Schoen maneuvered from offering two second-round picks for Burns to parting with only a second and a fifth.

• Schoen excitedly spoke to new defensive coordinator Shane Bowen about the potential trade for Burns. Schoen quipped that even he could play cornerback with Burns, Lawrence and outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux rushing the passer.

The lack of investment at corner continues to stick out while reviewing the early stages of the offseason. If the Giants are going to spend a chunk of their $11.7 million in cap space on a player, cornerback sticks out as the position most likely to receive an investment.

• For all the attention paid to Barkley’s departure, there has been very little discussion of Xavier McKinney, who signed the bigger free-agent contract elsewhere (four years, $67 million with Green Bay).

Schoen said he felt better about possibly re-signing McKinney after the salary cap was announced at a higher amount than expected. While speaking to Brown, McDonnell and Rossetti at the combine, Schoen proposed making an offer to McKinney that would be “enticing” with the understanding that “this may be off the table come next week.”

That’s a similar approach that Schoen used with Barkley last year before the franchise tag deadline. Schoen pulled his offer to Barkley after the tag deadline passed and then lowered his future offers. There was no talk of potentially transition tagging McKinney, although that had been reported as a possibility at the time. Hopefully, we gain more insight into the McKinney negotiations next week.

• If the concerns about Nabers’ personality prevent him from reaching his potential, it will be easy to second guess the decision to pass on Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze, who went ninth to the Bears.

Area scout Hannah Burnett raved about Odunze’s character, calling him “smart, tough dependable — everything you want” in the pre-combine staff meeting. Daboll nodded along during Odunze’s answer about his leadership traits during the combine interview and remarked, “You’re an impressive young man.”

• This was the seating arrangement for the combine interviews with prospects: In the first tier of the semi-circle surrounding the prospect was the relevant position coach, Schoen, Daboll, the relevant coordinator and special assistant to the GM Jessie Armstead in the prime seat closest to the player. In the next ring, national scouts Jeremy Breit, Marcus Cooper and Mike Derice were along the wall, with Brown, McDonnell and assistant director of player personnel Dennis Hickey behind Daboll and Schoen. Co-owner John Mara, executive advisor to the GM Ryan Cowden and director of coaching operations Laura Young were shown at a table behind Armstead for one interview. Daboll’s son, Christian, an offensive assistant, and assistant quarterbacks coach Christian Jones were behind Brown, McDonnell and Hickey for the QB interviews.

(Top photo: Luke Hales / Getty Images)





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