There aren’t many things more frustrating than a highly drafted player who hasn’t lived up to his potential. Whether it’s due to injuries, scheme, or a plethora of different factors, a good amount of first-round selections end up as disappointments relative to their draft status. Usually, this distinction can be found within the first three years of a career, as that seems to be the typical length before words like “bust” start making their way to the forefront.
Sometimes, however, players take longer than that to breakout, which categorizes them as, what I like to call, late bloomers. Perfect examples of late bloomers are players like DeVante Parker and Arik Armstead, two prospects that took a long time to develop but showed last season why they were worth the patience and slow approach.
For this exercise, the late bloomers I’m trying to unearth need to fit the following criteria...
- First-round draft pick
- Still on his rookie contract
- Fifth-year option was declined
The first 3 players in this segment have been Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis, Indianapolis Colts Safety Malik Hooker, and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross. Next up is Falcons EDGE Takkarist McKinley, an inconsistent defender yet to reach his true potential.
Where McKinley currently stacks up
Drafted 26th overall back in 2017, McKinley is an uber-athletic and dynamic rusher who seemed to be poised for big things early on in his Falcons career. Nabbing six sacks as a rookie despite only playing 38% of Atlanta’s defensive snaps, McKinley performed exceptionally well in limited reps, showing the potential of a double-digit sack artist in that initial season.
Unfortunately, as more snaps have come, McKinley hasn’t gotten better as a player. Continuing to show lackluster ability against the run, McKinley did gain seven sacks as a sophomore, but that number dropped to a dismal 3.5 a season ago. If he isn’t pressuring the passer, Mckinley is extremely limited in what he can do, and—as cited by that 3.5 sack number—we saw that exposed in 2019.
Yes, heading into 2020 McKinley still carries relatively high upside, but should be considered nothing more than a third-down speed-rusher until he can utilize different parts of his limited arsenal.
Why you should be optimistic
There’s no doubt that McKinley has athleticism in every sense of the word. Running an absurd 4.59 40-yard dash back at his 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, the 6-foot-2, 259-pound defender has instances where he simply shocks opposing offensive linemen, either shooting gaps or running right around them on the perimeter. It’s these physical traits that keep everyone going back to the former Bruin and his immense talent, even if he hasn’t fully blossomed at this point in time. However, it’s not just his athleticism that makes a potential breakout possible, it’s his usage.
Only playing 53% of Atlanta's defensive snaps last season, McKinley may see an uptick in overall reps next season now that Vic Beasley, Atlanta’s other starting EDGE, signed with the Tennessee Titans. Yes, Dante Fowler Jr, (a vastly better player than Beasley) signed in Atlanta, but he fills a much more well-rounded role than Beasley. Beasley was a diminutive speed rusher just like McKinley, so they sort of canceled each other out during their individual tenures with the Falcons.
Now with Beasley gone, McKinley can fully operate a speed-rush role without having to share time and play outside of his comfort zone. Whether he sees fewer snaps, more, or around the same, the hope is that McKinley having a pure pass-rush role (or perhaps even a stand-up role) will increase his overall efficiency and pass-rush production. Trying to get back to his rookie self is extremely important, and allowing McKinley to win with his athleticism—not power—is the key to unlocking that.
Why you should worry
We’ve talked about it about 10 times so far, McKinley is a great athlete. Unfortunately, that’s really all he does.
Washed out against the run and going long instances of games without making an impact, McKinley—despite “starting” 21 games over the last two seasons—is a situational rusher, which limits his overall effectiveness (and potential upside) considerably. Sure, niche speed rushers have a role in the league, but if you can’t become a well-rounded player, it’s going to be much, MUCH harder to prove worthy of a first-round selection (or even a roster spot).
With Fowler now also in town, it’s quite possible McKinley sees no starts in 2020, given Dan Quinn likes a “bigger” end on the other side of the defensive line. This could be seen as a positive (he was at his best when he didn’t start), but being awarded fewer snaps is dangerous, especially when McKinley could theoretically be released at any moment.
Anything close to a repeat performance of last year means McKinley is all but gone, so finishing plays and garnering impressive sack numbers seems to be the only pathway to a breakout year. As Doctor Strange would surely agree, fewer scenarios make things a lot more difficult, and McKinley seems to be facing those same Thanos-like, improbable odds at this point in time.
McKinley sees around 40% of the Falcons’ defensive snaps and garners 5-6 sacks over the course of the season. Atlanta leaves the year wanting an upgrade at the position and McKinley hits the open market in a similar situation to the one he’s in now.