Kyle Lauletta could be crucial to Giants' Saquon Barkley gamble

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The apogee of rookie camp ridiculousness was reached early for the New York Giants when, midway through the first day of practice last Friday, about two dozen reporters and photographers scrambled to get in position next to a port-a-potty, the better to get a view of Saquon Barkley confronting a blocking sled for the first time in a Big Blue uniform.

So goes it when the general manager has already suggested divine intervention into Barkley's talent. But at the far end of an adjacent field, only a few eyes were on Kyle Lauletta, who might have as much to do as anyone with determining whether the Giants' selection of Barkley will ultimately be viewed as a success.

Barkley was considered the surest thing in this draft class, and nothing he displayed at rookie camp -- including the good hands and spatial awareness that earned praise from new head coach Pat Shurmur -- undercuts that. But don't be blinded by the gold jacket general manager Dave Gettleman envisions for Barkley -- New York took a significant gamble in taking him. In passing on a handful of top quarterbacks, particularly with Sam Darnold still available at second overall, the Giants bet big not only on Barkley -- whose talent and character are unassailable and rightly enchanting -- but on something riskier: that Eli Manning, at 37 and coming off a brutal season that felt like a bottoming out after several mediocre ones, will be resurrected by the addition of Barkley and new pieces on the offensive line, as well as the return to good health of Odell Beckham Jr.

The offense will almost certainly look better than it did last year -- not a high bar, considering the G-Men ranked 31st in scoring -- but incremental improvement was not the point. The only way this bet pays off is if the Giants win. A Super Bowl. Right now, in the few years that Gettleman and Shurmur believe Manning has left. Without that level of success, Barkley's hoped-for brilliance will be nothing more than a diversion, because the win-now strategy will have fallen short while the planning-for-the-future approach would have been non-existent. That combination sets back franchises for years, but is particularly haunting for those that had a rare top-five pick concurrently with a rare class of quarterbacks.

Lauletta, though, could save the Giants from the possibility of staring into that abyss. He would have to be a rarer thing than this year's confluence of Darnolds and Rosens and Mayfields, a Day 3 pick from a quarterback no man's land in the Football Championship Subdivision who turns into the franchise bedrock.

There was some pre-draft buzz about Lauletta, in large part because the New England Patriots appeared interested -- and their success with Jimmy Garoppolo, another FCS product, leant Lauletta an extra bit of Belichickian burnishment. But there are others, including those who have spent considerable time with Lauletta, who believe he has the goods to be in the Garoppolo mold, possessed of the intelligence and intangibles that overcome the lower-level experience to form the foundation of an NFL starter.

John Garrett, brother of Cowboys coach Jason, longtime NFL assistant, current Lafayette head coach and former Richmond offensive coordinator, is among them. Garrett was one of the four -- four -- offensive coordinators Lauletta had in his five years at Richmond (they all left for promotions). He was not there when Lauletta arrived, but he tells the story of how the lightly recruited Lauletta came to land at Richmond. As a senior from Exton, Pennsylvania, west of Philadelphia, Lauletta competed in a camp at Richmond and did well, but there were other quarterbacks the coaches wanted to evaluate, so Lauletta did not get a scholarship offer after the camp.

There was another camp scheduled at Richmond for the following month and, a week before that camp began, Lauletta called the coaches to ask if they had decided on a quarterback yet. When the answer was no, but that there were quarterbacks coming to the camp they wanted to see, Lauletta asked if he, too, could go to the camp to compete against them. He did, outperformed the competition and won the scholarship.

"The point of the story," Garrett said. "Don't think he can't accomplish what he wants to accomplish. This guy doesn't take a backward step to anybody."

Lauletta's cycle through coordinators and their systems might have been the perfect preparation for the NFL. He played in a spread system and he also played under center. Garrett's system was pro style, with a voluminous playbook, a lot of formations, a lot of personnel groups and the need to go through progressions based on the type of coverage Lauletta had to read. One thing stood out: what Garrett describes as a near-photographic memory, with an ability to quickly retain and process a large amount of information, and a thirst for more. When Garrett first got the job in 2016, before Lauletta's junior season, he walked across the hall at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night to print out part of the new playbook. Sitting in the offensive staff room alone watching tape from spring practices was Lauletta.

"He's been trained like a pro quarterback," said Garrett, who compared Lauletta's love of preparation to Jason Witten's. "He's got high intellect."

Lauletta was accurate (63.5 completion percentage over his Richmond career), handled pressure well, showed an ability to scramble and threw with anticipation. He was named the Senior Bowl's Most Outstanding Player after completing eight of his 12 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns. So why did he last until the fourth round?

By Lauletta's own admission, there were a lot of interceptions -- 35 in 40 total college games played. And the most serious question is about the No. 108 overall pick's arm strength. Lauletta threw a few deep passes on Friday, the first day of Giants camp, and several missed the mark, but what he can do now is beside the point.

Garrett expects Lauletta's strength to increase as he builds up his legs and core and learns to generate his power from that base instead of simply from his arm. Shurmur has volunteered that he thinks Lauletta has plenty of arm. Lauletta shrugged when he was asked about his arm before admitting that it bothers him a little:

"If that's the worst thing that people say about me, then so be it. It is what it is. I think Coach Shurmur had some nice things to say about that and I don't think it's an issue. I think there are a lot of other attributes that a quarterback has to have and I think I have those pretty well. I think I have enough arm strength -- we'll just have to wait and see. But I'll continue to develop that, as well."

Lauletta demurred when he was asked if he views himself as the Giants quarterback of the future, respectfully saying it is Manning's team.

"His success and his resume speaks for itself and I do think he has some years left," Lauletta said. "How many years? We'll just have to wait and see, but like I said, I'm just going to do everything I can."

There is also the matter of Davis Webb, the third-round draft pick from last year who was well thought of by the prior regime -- but who never got a chance to get on the field. Webb and Lauletta will compete to be Manning's backup. And Manning, to his considerable credit, will be a good and helpful mentor, as he has been to all the quarterbacks with whom he has played in New York. Still, Lauletta eventually ascending to the starting job remains a long shot -- for every Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott, fourth-rounders who flourished, there are many more Ryan Nassibs and Matt Barkleys. Considering the very public votes of confidence in the current QB1 and Manning's durability, we are unlikely to know where Lauletta falls on that spectrum any time soon -- as long as the offense performs the way Gettleman is banking on.

That is the if on which the Giants' immediate future, and the franchise's bet on Barkley, depends. Whenever the accounting of this draft is done, the spotlight will, of course, shine the brightest on Barkley's career. But the quarterback who was overlooked out of high school, out of college and even, to a degree, at his first practice as a professional, is the safety net the Giants must hope saves them if their plan fails.

"My whole career I've carried this chip on my shoulder," Lauletta said. "I was underrecruited and coaches said you're not good enough. I've always felt I have to prove myself to them. But now that I've made it, I don't feel like I'm being doubted anymore. I just have to go about my business just like everybody else and just try to improve each day. That's the beauty of quarterback, no matter how long you've done it, you can always still improve on things."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista

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