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Xavier McKinney: 5 plays to get excited about, and 2 to worry about

How good is the 36th overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft?

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl - Alabama v Oklahoma Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The New York Giants were fortunate to land Alabama safety Xavier McKinney with the 36th selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. During the post-draft presser, general manager Dave Gettleman mentioned a potential trade back scenario, but it was contingent on the presence of McKinney. Since the “do it all” safety fell to 36, the Giants felt it necessary to draft McKinney, whose value far exceeded his draft position, according to Gettleman and head coach Joe Judge who had a first-round grade on the safety. I didn’t anticipate McKinney falling out of the first round, let alone right into the Giants lap, so I was eager to jump into his film and further evaluate him as a New York Giant.

The first thing that jumped out to me was McKinney’s versatility. Alabama head coach Nick Saban entrusted him with a lot of different assignments, alignments, and roles for that Alabama defense. According to Pro Football Focus, McKinney lined up 286 times in the box, 271 times as a free safety, 227 times as a slot corner, 38 times on the defensive line, and 5 times at wide corner in 2019. McKinney was Saban’s “Star” and “Money” defensive player (in certain packages), which is essentially a hybrid defensive back/linebacker. Star is more of a fifth defensive back in nickel packages (like a SAM). Money tends to be a bit more physical near the box, usually in dime packages (think money). McKinney played both of these roles, which shows such a high level of trust from the Alabama coaching staff. It’s not a shock — after watching his film as he’s never out of position. McKinney always seems to understand how to take routes away with angles, timing, and quickness. I saw several reps throughout the LSU game where Joe Burrow attempted to check down, and right as he turned his head McKinney was closing width on the pass catcher. It wasn’t lateness, it was instincts and timing. McKinney has a fundamental understanding of where to be and how to execute.

His versatility and ability to execute different assignments at a high level gives Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham so much flexibility with how he operates these second-level defenders. Julian Love, Jabrill Peppers, and now McKinney — we should think of these players independently of their assigned position. This isn’t Madden — they can play in the box, be lined up at SAM, WILL, slot corner, on the line of scrimmage. Having these interchangeable parts allows your defense to keep the offense guessing. Being able to rotate your safeties from all over the field gives quarterbacks a lot less time to figure out the coverage from pre-snap to post-snap.

Let’s highlight five plays from McKinney to be excited about, and a couple of plays that show areas where he need to improve.

Play 1 (vs. LSU)

Fourth quarter, 10:52, Second-and-4)

In a one-possession game, on Alabama’s 20-yard line, LSU is driving and threatening to extend its lead. LSU lines up in a tight stack, along with an H-Back, to the strength, with a backside receiver inside the numbers to the weak side. Joe Burrow is in shot-gun with running Clyde Edwards-Helaire to the strength of the formation.

McKinney is playing Star, over the H-Back, who blocks down on Terrell Lewis (24), while the stacked receivers both seal Shyheim Carter (5) outside. This creates an alley off the D-Gap and McKinney shows his instinctive, physical, and quick nature to come through and provide a punishing hit for a loss of yardage. This is a big-time play in the box to force a third-and-5 in the fourth quarter of a close game.

Play 2 (vs. Auburn)

First quarter, 8:22, First-and-10

As we witnessed above, McKinney brings instinctive physicality, along with a quick trigger to the box, which is evident in his play. Above, we’ll see the same thing from a deeper position, while moving laterally. We don’t see McKinney in the beginning of the play as the Crimson Tide defense are in their 3-4 Over front, with McKinney as the single-high safety. and Auburn runs a jet-sweep with Matthew Hill (19), who does a solid job sifting through traffic. I love how McKinney avoids two blocking attempts to find the alley, and then he delivers a big hit. McKinney stayed square and balanced while coming downhill, which is important. The angle downhill, the powerful hit, and the ability to fill the alley from a deep position are parts of McKinney’s game that can be executed in a solid manner. He shows high levels of processing in the box while deep in run support and in coverage, which is consistent with his play.

Play 3 (vs. South Carolina)

Fourth quarter, 9:51, Second-and-13

A 10-play, 43-yard drive by the Gamecocks was halted by excellent McKinney coverage, and a trepidatious throw from South Carolina Ryan Hilinski. We can’t see McKinney until he’s at the catch point, but he’s able to use good leverage up the receiver’s route while positioning himself in an advantageous place to make an aggressive play on the ball. Using his tracking skills, McKinney high points the ball and plucks it out of the air before it reaches the receiver. McKinney created 10 turnover-worthy plays for Nick Saban’s defense. His ball skills are adept and he has a knack for throwing his shoulder into running backs to force fumbles. At Alabama, as a two-year starter, McKinney had 20 passes defensed, 5 forced fumbles, and 5 interceptions.

Play 4 (vs. LSU)

Third quarter, 12:34, Second-and-10

At the start of the second half, LSU receives the football and the Crimson Tide, facing a 33-13 deficit. LSU lines up in a BUNCH formation to the field, with the inside player being the H-Back, along with a backside receiver at the top of the numbers, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire to the weak-side of Burrow. McKinney, an excellent blitzer, puts himself shaded inside the No. 2 receiver, who is on the line of scrimmage. By doing this, he disguises the blitz, using Justin Jefferson (2) as a screen against the left tackle Saahdiq Charles (77). Alabama has man coverage on the backend, with Anfreenee Jennings (33) executing a tackle/end stunt on the line of scrimmage, which also occupies the eyes of Charles for a split second, but that split second is enough. McKinney uses his quick start/stop ability to explode out of his stance and then bends through the contact of a late recognizing Charles. McKinney’s lower body flexion, play strength to bend through contact, and his length assist him in getting to the top of the arc to swipe the ball out of Burrow’s hand, forcing a turnover. McKinney had 10 pressures on the season and he did it off the edge, through the interior gaps, and as a blitzing nickel. Patrick Graham runs a lot of 1-4-6 third down defenses, where the safeties switch responsibilities and rotate from pre- to post-snap. McKinney can be the deep player who rotates down, stays in coverage, fills the robber role, drops into the box, or blitzes. His versatility provides the Giants with options.

Play 5 (vs. LSU)

Second quarter, 14:29, First-and-10

This play may not look great from McKinney’s standpoint, but it shows his film study, understanding of route combinations, and instincts. McKinney is the Money backer. Edwards-Helaire releases on a seam route to occupy McKinney and the receiver to this side does a clearout, which was all devised to open up the motioning Justin Jefferson (2) in the flat from the opposite side. A brilliant play call by Joe Brady, but McKinney, as we can see, sniffs it out and comes off the seam pattern. McKinney is the only Alabama defender anywhere near Jefferson. He doesn’t make the tackle, but McKinney at least forces Jefferson inside so his teammates can rally to the football.

Things to work on

Play 1 (vs. LSU)

First quarter, 11:55, First-and-10

McKinney is in a two-high defense pre-snap, and he’s towards the boundary at the top middle of the screen. Judging by the actions of the defensive players right before the snap, McKinney had single-high responsibility. Jordan Battle (9) rotates down into the box, as Jefferson motions, and McKinney starts backpedaling to the middle of the field. Once McKinney notices the run, he comes downhill hard outside, but he’s a bit wild and falls for the hard outside plant foot of Edwards-Helaire. Again, McKinney isn’t a top-level athlete. He can change direction well, but that doesn’t mean he’s not susceptible to plays like this, especially if he’s coming in kind of wildly. Despite not being able to make the tackle, McKinney is still able to box Edwards-Helaire back inside and the gain is very minimal. This isn’t a huge knock on McKinney’s game but he’s probably a better tackler near the line of scrimmage than he is from a single-high alignment. He only had 11 missed tackles in 2019, eight against the run, and three against the pass. In 2018, he had two missed tackles against the run and six against the pass, according to PFF. That’s while playing more 900 and 800 snaps respectively. Tackling isn’t an issue, but this is something he can clean up.

Play 2 (vs. LSU)

First quarter, 10:17, Second-and-3

Another two-high defense pre-snap; McKinney is lined up outside the boundary hash (toward the sideline), and LSU runs a pick and go concept. The No. 1 receiver picks the corner in press coverage on the number two to the boundary, as the number two loops around the traffic for a free release at the line of scrimmage. This creates automatic separation for the wide receiver, due to the traffic. Burrow throws a perfect pass rendering McKinney ineffective here, but the play also alludes to the lack of elite range that McKinney possesses. He’s not a true single-high Malik Hooker type of safety, but he has enough range to function in that capacity if need be. This may not be something he can “work on.” It comes down to athletic ability. The angle McKinney takes happens to be good, especially since his leverage was leaning inside right after the snap, due to Battle rotating down into the robber role again. This isn’t a terrible thing as there aren’t a lot of true single-high, rangy safeties in the league, but it should be brought to light because Giants’ fans have been yearning for these types of safeties for quite awhile. Nevertheless, McKinney is a good football player who can do everything well.

There’s not a lot to censure about McKinney’s game. He’s a solid player with great instincts and a ton of football intelligence. He’s good in run support, not a top athlete, but a good one, and he’s got good ball skills. After watching his film, I see why he was the first safety selected in the 2020 draft. Fortunately for the Giants, it was at pick 36.

Bonus breakdown

Scouting Academy Director Dan Hatman dropped a video breaking down how Giants’ defensive coordinator Patrick Graham utilized the free safety last season with the Miami Dolphins, and how McKinney fits the role. It is absolutely worth the 20 minutes of your time.