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Giants star Saquon Barkley is the Bears’ toughest RB challenge to date

Giants running back Saquon Barkley runs against the Eagles. | Elsa/Getty Images

Giants running back Saquon Barkley runs against the Eagles. | Elsa/Getty Images

When Bears safety Adrian Amos claimed last year that Penn State junior Saquon Barkley was already a top-three NFL running back, his teammates laughed at him.

They thought Amos, a Penn State alum, was looking at Barkley through navy-and-white glasses.

‘‘And then you see what [Barkley is] doing now,’’ cornerback Prince Amukamara said. ‘‘He has to sustain it, but he’s been playing lights out for [the Giants].’’

Barkley has lived up to the hype — from Amos and those with bigger megaphones — since being drafted second overall by the Giants last spring.

‘‘When you’re in the locker room, talking, you’re biased toward your school,’’ Amos said Wednesday. ‘‘Back then, I was saying that — with some truth to it — as, ‘He can do a lot of things.’

‘‘He has to prove a little bit more first in the league for us to say that because there’s a lot of great backs in the league. As far as talent-wise — the ability, what he can do — that’s when you put him in those conversations.’’

Barkley deserves to be there now. He’s fourth in the NFL with 829 rushing yards and second among running backs with 581 receiving yards. He needs 18 catches and 294 receiving yards in the next five games to set NFL records for catches and yards by a rookie running back.

‘‘Saquon Barkley is everything they said he would be,’’ defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said.

Barkley averages 3.54 yards after contact, fifth-most in the league, and leads all running backs with 25 missed tackles forced, according to Pro Football Focus.

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‘‘He’s shifty, he’s as fast as any back in the league and he’s just as powerful as any back in the league,’’ Amos said.

Barkley will be the best running back the Bears have faced all season (though the Rams’ Todd Gurley figures to take that crown from him next week). Sunday will be the first time this season the Bears have faced a running back who is ranked among the top 12 in rushing yards. The Bears, meanwhile, rank second in rushing yards allowed (80.8 per game).

‘‘Each week, he competes in a way which shows us that we picked the right guy,’’ Giants coach Pat Shurmur said. ‘‘He’s an outstanding player, but he also does the things necessary that you have to do if at some point you’re going to be considered great.’’

Asked whether Barkley was reminiscent of anyone, Bears coach Matt Nagy paid him the ultimate compliment — ‘‘He
reminds me of Saquon Barkley,’’ he said — before comparing his knack for breaking tackles to that of Chiefs star Kareem Hunt. Nagy said both players have lower bodies ‘‘like tree trunks.’’ Barkley’s thighs measure 28 inches around, inspiring the nickname ‘‘Sa-quads.’’

‘‘You try to tackle him, you’ve got to come the right way,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘Or else you’re going to get tackled.’’

Fewer and fewer teams have done that. Barkley averaged 20 carries and about 103 rushing yards in November after averaging almost 14 carries and 65 rushing yards in the Giants’ first eight games. Quarterback Eli Manning has run more bootlegs in the last few weeks than he had in his entire life, Shurmur joked.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s message to his players this week was appropriate, then.

‘‘We’re going to have to bring our hard hats,’’ Amukamara said.

Amos agreed, saying the Bears have to gang up on Barkley.

‘‘If everybody’s swarming to the ball, everybody’s coming in with bad intentions, then we’ll have a good day,’’ he said.