By: Cory Ezring | @CoryEzring
Before the 2019 college football season, two underclassmen safeties were considered possible first-round selections in the 2020 NFL Draft. The first was Grant Delpit of LSU, widely thought to be the best defensive back in the class prior to the beginning of 2019.
The second was Xavier McKinney out of Alabama, the versatile defensive chess piece, capable of filling various roles in an NFL defense. As the 2019 season progressed, Delpit’s play seemed to fall off, while McKinney proved he was one of the most valuable defensive players in the nation. Consequently, the 2020 NFL Draft commenced with McKinney as the front-runner to be the first safety taken.
Despite the apparent depth at the position, no safeties were selected in the first round of the draft. Early on day two, the New York Giants found themselves on the clock to make the 36th overall selection. With that pick, the Giants chose Alabama defensive back Xavier McKinney.
The star player on the Crimson Tide’s 2019 defense was able to impact the game from a variety of alignments. Indeed, one of McKinney’s most enticing traits as a draft prospect was his impressive versatility. During his final year at Alabama, the defensive back played as a deep safety, a slot cornerback and even a sub-package linebacker at times. McKinney was able to succeed in these roles because of his supreme intelligence and athleticism.
The Alabama product played with impressive instincts, awareness and physical talent. McKinney consistently diagnosed plays and processed route combinations in real-time. The young defensive back capitalized on his football intelligence with extremely fluid hips and quick feet. He was able to work laterally and change direction effortlessly. McKinney was also a very explosive player in short areas, which aided him in coverage and against the run. He complimented his movement skills with standout functional strength.
The Crimson Tide star translated his football IQ and athleticism into tangible results in coverage. McKinney thrived in deep halves and underneath zones due to his play recognition and short-area quickness. Alabama also employed him in single-high coverage at times.
While the single-high role was not his strongest, McKinney was able to survive there thanks to his movement skills and instincts. What’s more, he was a very capable man coverage defender, utilizing his fluidity and footwork to mirror receivers and tight ends, while disrupting their route’s timing and spacing with his strength and physicality.
Alabama safety’s physical profile also made him an effective run defender. McKinney followed the ball-carrier through traffic and attacked downhill at a high rate. Generally a sound tackler, McKinney took any opportunity he could to provide a big hit.
Additionally, he frequently blew up skill-position players tasked with blocking him outside the hashes. When given the opportunity, he even showed that he was capable of beating offensive linemen with both quicknesses and occasionally, power.
The versatile defender was not only a talented athlete on the field but a hard worker and team leader off of it. He notably spent his time before and after practices watching film. Teammates and coaches alike praised McKinney for his work ethic and demeanor.
In recognition of his talent and dedication, they voted him “permanent team captain.” His confidence and intelligence were on display before every snap, as he consistently communicated with and directed his teammates before the play.
Overall, McKinney was an all-around safety who had experience in multiple roles and was respected by those in the Alabama football program. However, the future-second round pick had certain issues on film that were costly to his draft stock.
Many considered McKinney to be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. In other words, some felt his well-rounded skill-set overshadowed a lack of elite traits or abilities. In addition to this critique, other concerns were more viscerally evident on film or in his testing.
While Alabama’s defensive chess piece was generally very effective in coverage at all levels of the field, there were questions about his long speed and specifically, his ability to operate in single-high coverage. McKinney compensated for average range on the back end with impressive play recognition skills and fluidity. When it came to the pros, there was no guarantee he would continue to process plays and react at the same speed in the NFL as he did in college.
The young defensive back also had various issues against the run during his time at Alabama. McKinney had a tendency to take poor angles to the ball, allowing the ball-carrier to bounce outside. What’s more, his high number of tackles were not enough to alleviate concerns surrounding his poor tackling technique.
Although McKinney consistently approached the tackle point with no hesitation and generated stopping power, he often came in too high. This tendency limited his functional power and hurt his ability to wrap up ball carriers.
On top of these issues in his film, the Alabama product had a poor showing at the 2020 NFL Combine. McKinney measured in with just 30 ⅞” arms. To add to it, his lone attempt in the 40- yard dash resulted in an underwhelming 4.63 seconds. This number confirmed suspicions about McKinney’s limited long speed.
Further, McKinney injured himself while running the 40-yard dash. Consequently, he was unable to participate in position drills at the combine – an area in which he likely would have excelled.
Despite these apparent weaknesses, the Giants’ second-round pick was expected to be an immediate contributor in the NFL with both a high floor and a high ceiling. So far, the young safety has had a turbulent start to his professional career.
The Alabama product was expected to instantly compete for a starting role for the Giants. After a promising start to training camp with his new team, McKinney’s season was suddenly put in jeopardy with a broken foot. The young safety was placed on injured reserve and expected to miss at least the first half of his rookie year.
In the second half of the season, the much-hyped draft pick made his debut for Big Blue. In Week 12, McKinney saw his first snaps on an NFL field. He was limited to just 14 plays with only five coming on defense. Week 13 told a similar story, as McKinney played six defensive snaps out of 11 total.
Following an injury to fellow rookie and starting slot cornerback Darnay Holmes, the Giants’ second-round pick was finally given a chance to earn serious playing time in Week 14 against the Arizona Cardinals.
In his first career start, the Alabama product played 48% of the team’s total defensive snaps against Arizona. The next week, McKinney started again and saw the field on 64% of the team’s defensive snaps against the Cleveland Browns.
While the talented defender is still developing as a professional, after missing so much valuable practice and playing time, he has been able to fill a number of roles for the Giants’ defense. To this point, McKinney has already shown that he has the versatility, movement skills, instincts, discipline and coverage ability of an NFL starter.
Despite being a young and inexperienced defender, the Giants’ 2020 second-round pick has been able to move around the defense during his two weeks of substantial playing time. Specifically, McKinney has seen time at single-high safety, in deep halves coverage, in man or underneath zone coverage out of the slot, in the box at nickel or dime linebacker and in a robber safety role. His varied usage is indicative of the trust coaches have in him. Moreover, his versatility is valuable in and of itself.
The rookie’s quickness, fluidity and movement skills are immediately apparent on film. McKinney covers significant ground in his backpedal and when working laterally.
Additionally, he can enhance his play speed with exceptional footwork and change of direction ability. What’s more, his short-area linear and lateral burst have carried over from college.
New York’s rookie safety has already started to adapt to the NFL’s speed and to play at a high level. McKinney diagnoses plays quickly and recognizes route combinations in real-time. He has also proven to be very disciplined both in pass and run defense. The Alabama product does not abandon his assignment against read options or in coverage.
Thus far, his athleticism has also complemented his awareness and discipline very well. In fact, the young safety is consistently in position in both man and zone coverage.
The rookie defensive back’s varied alignments have tested his ability in coverage. So far, he has been able to pass these tests thanks to his play strength, movement skills and instincts. McKinney has also exhibited an impressive understanding of leverage and spacing, which further enhances his ability to defend the pass. He has played at a high level in zone coverage thanks to his processing ability and his explosiveness in short areas.
The Alabama product consistently displays impressive vision by reading the quarterback while simultaneously maintaining proper spacing and leverage in his zone.
In man coverage, the versatile defender has performed well when tasked with covering both quick slot receivers and tight ends. He is very aggressive within the contact window and complements that physicality with the fluidity to mirror route runners.
In addition to his performance in coverage, the second-round rookie’s discipline, athleticism and instincts have been on display against the run. McKinney has already improved his angles to the ball, consistently playing the ball carrier’s outside leg to force them to cut inside and into the heart of the defense.
Additionally, the Alabama product has been a difficult blocking assignment for receivers, tight ends and linemen alike. He uses leverage very well to increase his functional length and, consequently, stacks wide receivers and tight ends to set the edge. McKinney has also, at times, handled linemen thanks to his quickness, use of leverage and active hands at the point of engagement.
All in all, the young Alabama product has already exhibited impressive traits. That being said, there are still issues in his play that he must address before he can take the next step.
Some of the concerns that surrounded the Giants’ second-round pick while in college have resurfaced. In single-high coverage, McKinney has survived in the NFL the same way that he did at Alabama – by using his impressive play recognition and fluidity to be one step ahead of the offense.
This may work in small sample sizes but consistently relying on McKinney in this role does not play to his strengths. Similarly, the young safety is capable of defending some wide receivers in man coverage out of the slot as a result of his agility and fluidity. However, he should not be trusted to repeatedly guard quicker receivers without safety help.
It is also worth noting that McKinney, on a snap in his first game against Cincinnati, employed poor press technique at the line of scrimmage. He lunged at the line and, upon missing, was forced to play recovery. These weaknesses in McKinney’s film, while important to keep in mind, should not have deleterious effects on his NFL outlook. In fact, they can all be fixed or avoided with proper game-planning and coaching.
On top of these coverage concerns, New York’s young safety has struggled to this point as a tackler. McKinney still attacks the tackle point too high and in doing so, decreases his functional strength. He also tends to bite on jab steps and head fakes by ball-carriers.
In addition, McKinney has had trouble wrapping ball carriers up as a result of his relatively short arms. What’s more, he has repeatedly shown that he is disinterested in being the second man to contact. In other words, he takes his foot off the gas in gang tackle situations. Finally, while he typically sets the edge well, McKinney has flashed problematic gap integrity against the run which frees up rushing lanes for his opponents. Moving forward, McKinney must improve his tackling to become a top NFL safety.
The 2020 NFL offseason was likely difficult for any rookie. In an already-limited first summer with a new team, McKinney was forced to battle through a season-threatening injury. In a small number of total snaps, New York’s second-round rookie has since stood out both in coverage and against the run and should only improve with more experience and NFL coaching. Indeed, McKinney’s level of future success at the professional level may be contingent on his usage. The talented young safety can thrive as a hybrid defender. Similarly, pigeonholing him into one strict role can cap the value he provides an NFL defense. If the Giants’ talented young chess piece continues to develop at this rate and is used in a way that highlights his unique skill-set, he could reasonably become one of the top players in an ever-growing group of hyper-versatile defenders. After an offseason limited by a global pandemic and a rookie year limited by a broken foot, Xavier McKinney has shown that he has the potential of a high-level NFL starter.
For a more in-depth read on his strengths and weaknesses in college, below you can read my 2020 NFL Draft scouting report on Xavier McKinney based on his play at Alabama:
Hard worker who is widely praised by teammates and coaching staff. Watched film before and after practices at Alabama – his film and the other team’s film. Alpha dog mentality, McKinney is clearly a leader on the field. Basically played linebacker against New Mexico State (2019) alongside a true freshman – he took control of the defense and was a verbal leader in that game.
Extremely versatile – plays in the slot, nickel and dime linebacker, deep halves, etc. One of four players in FBS in 2019 who had 100 snaps at outside linebacker, inside linebacker, cornerback, and safety. Excellent in the robber role but has the fluidity, intelligence, instincts, looseness, quickness, and physicality to play in multiple roles. Well suited to play all zones – underneath, deep halves, etc. – outside of a single high alignment (although, he is capable of playing single high from time to time in games). Extremely efficient and productive blitzer.
Very natural football player with great instincts both in coverage, against the run, and even on special teams or as a blitzer. Plays with excellent football IQ, often seems to be one step ahead. McKinney is a smart and instinctual player who diagnoses and recognizes plays very quickly and has the athleticism, the skill and the trust in himself to capitalize. Possesses very good reflexes and reaction time. Plays smart assignment football.
Above-average athlete that is twitchy with solid speed to go along with a very impressive short burst. While he is not a blazer on film, he does seem pretty athletic. Plays faster than his forty time because of how fluid and explosive he is. Very good lateral movement skills. Extremely strong for his size. Very good functional contact balance.
Changes direction naturally and with little wasted movement. Fluid transitional movement and can flip his hips smoothly and without losing a step. Very clean, smooth, fluid, technically sound footwork. Always keeps his feet under him when changing direction and moving in all directions.
Extremely patient in coverage, does not jump when he does not have to, which allows him to be strong in both man and zone coverage. Outstanding route recognition. Shows a legit ability to function as somewhat of a tight-end eraser due to his burst, footwork, fluidity, solid size, very impressive functional strength and physicality.
Shows good physicality in man coverage to go with strong mirroring ability thanks to his very clean footwork, fluid hips and plus athleticism. Generally patient in man coverage, does not bite on deception up the route stem. When in coverage, locks onto his man’s chest – if you eye the receiver’s chest, you have a good idea of where he is going.
Very nice instincts in zone coverage. Plays with very good zone awareness. Understands underneath zones and reads the quarterback well in zone coverage. Does a nice job of baiting quarterbacks and of understanding his physical ability to cover ground due to his burst and speed. Solid ability to click and close to make a play on the ball or give up minimal yards after the catch.
Catches the ball naturally, with his hands – will go up and high point the ball, given the opportunity. Great feel for hand placement at the catch point – strong hands to force a fumble or a drop.
Aggressive and willing to attack the run. Finds the ball very well when defending the run. Strong tackler who does a good job of wrapping up. Very quick when asked to come downhill. Efficient tackler who hits hard when given the opportunity. His functional strength and athleticism allow him to make tackles while still coming in high, this aspect of his game would greatly improve with a lower approach. Does show good awareness at times in the run game to play the outside leg and force the back inside. Does a good job of sifting and seeing through the trash to get to the ball-carrier.
Violent and aggressive player when taking on blocks. Strong defensive back who packs a punch with his hands. Has even held his own against or beaten offensive linemen with push/pull moves as a blitzer. Very slippery against blockers both when attacking the ball-carrier on a run/screen or when blitzing the quarterback.
Ran a poor forty at the NFL Combine – 4.63 – after cramping during the run. Did not run a second forty or participate in the rest of the Combine due to cramping. Likely would have run in the mid-4.5-range if he had not cramped during the run. Doesn’t have ideal length, but it is not prohibitive – 30 7/8″ at the Combine.
While he generally anticipates routes, he can guess at times. Can bait the quarterback a bit too much and allow a completion.
Needs more experience in a single high alignment but has experience playing pretty much every other position – has potential as a single high because of his plus instincts and IQ, just needs to develop there and needs to be a step ahead because his range may not be good enough for single high.
Would like to see a bit more stopping power in his tackling but he generally brings the ball carrier down. He generally is an efficient tackler, but he would be even better if he came in lower – less effective because he comes in high at times. A bit overeager in his angles at times, leaves him tackling from behind or diving for ankles.