One of the New York Giants’ most significant injuries during 2022 was the one suffered by Xavier McKinney. Although McKinney was having a disappointing season prior to his gruesome fractured hand, his replacements did not do much better in his primary coverage role. A healthy and improved McKinney will be a key for the Giants’ defense to take a big step forward in 2023.
By the numbers
Contract: Final year of four-year, $8,391,046 million deal | Guaranteed at signing: $5,789,507 | 2023 cap hit: $2,669,878
Career to date
McKinney was selected by the Giants out of Alabama in the second round of the 2020 draft. During training camp of his rookie season, he suffered a pedal fracture of his left foot and underwent surgery. He did not take the field until Week 12 and did not start until Week 14. That season ended with some promise, though, as McKinney posted a 70.0 Pro Football Focus grade, including a 69.2 coverage grade primarily at free safety and slot corner. He had 25 combined tackles, one interception, one pass defensed, and one tackle for loss.
In 2021, McKinney got in his first fully healthy season in the NFL and announced his arrival to the Giants’ defensive scene. He ranked 14th out of 74 qualified safeties with a 75.4 PFF grade, including 10th with a 78.4 coverage grade. That year, he transitioned over to playing far more deep safety, doing so on 71.2% of his snaps, compared to 13% and 9% in the box and slot, respectively. McKinney had 93 combined tackles, 10 passes defensed, five interceptions including one pick-six, and one tackle for loss.
However, in 2022, McKinney took a step back. Though he continued to play primarily deep in coverage, his PFF grades had been significantly decreased even prior to his injury. Overall, in nine games started on the season, McKinney had 45 combined tackles, five passes defensed, two tackles for loss, one sack and quarterback hit, and one forced fumble. However, PFF gave him just a 57.8 overall grade and an identical coverage grade, both of which ranked 58th out of 74 safeties.
The emphasis placed on McKinney’s coverage skills is due to his role in recent years as primarily a deep safety. That player represents the last line of defense, particularly in Wink Martindale’s attacking system. McKinney is going to be tasked with single-high coverage more often than is popular across the NFL nowadays. If the Giants want to double-team A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin, or CeeDee Lamb, he’s often going to be the one providing the help.
One of the keys to Martindale’s system is to have back-end players who can cover when isolated. This may be less important for McKinney than it is for the cornerbacks, but it is still a big part of his role.
McKinney’s run defense also took a hit from 2021 to 2022, though. He went from a 68.0 PFF grade down to 56.1. This was based largely on his missed tackle rate in the run game, which ballooned from just 5.7% in 2021 (12th-best among safeties) all the way to 13%, which ranked 29th. Although still slightly above average, the Giants need solid tackling in the run game from McKinney, since he’s often going to be the last line of defense against the run, as well.
Safety play is not easy to evaluate statistically because there are fewer one-on-ones at the position. Still, McKinney’s impact on the game, especially in limiting big plays and causing some takeaways of his own, is crucial for the Giants’ defense to be able to attack as they want to.