INDIANAPOLIS — In any line of work, value is increased by being able to contribute in multiple ways and fill more than one role.
Playing safety in the NFL is no different.
Teams covet safeties that are interchangeable, capable of defending in deep zones, lining up in the box, blitzing and playing man coverage. While some safety prospects specialize in one or two of those fields, Alabama’s Xavier McKinney can do it all at a high level.
McKinney believes that his ability to do so many different things is what separates him from the other safeties available in the 2020 NFL Draft.
“I’m very versatile,” McKinney said Friday at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. “You can see that in the tape. I can do anything that you want me to do. And I do it well. I think that’s the biggest thing, just to know that no matter how the game is turning out to be whether we’re winning or losing, I’m going to go hard. I’m going to put 110 percent into every game. And you see that in my tape. I think that’s something that separates me from these other safeties here.”
McKinney’s all-around skill set enabled him to fill up the stat sheet because of how many ways he can defend.
He racked up 95 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, three interceptions, four forced fumbles and five pass breakups in 2019. His dominant junior season led to a Third Team all-American by the Associated Press and First Team All-SEC honors.
While McKinney makes it look easy, being able to serve in so many capacities is the product of not only an impressive physical skill set but a result of intense preparation so that he is ready to execute at a high level with the right understanding of all the roles he has to fill.
“During the week I try to make sure after every practice that I go upstairs and watch film,” McKinney shared. “I try to make sure that I get the game plan and know what I’m doing and make sure that I do my job. Every day before practice starts, I would go upstairs and watch film, and then we’d practice, and then after practice I would go upstairs and watch film again and I’d watch film on the other team to see how maybe I can do something or how something can be done.”
NFL offenses are challenging defenses in ways never seen before. Whether it is the spread passing game, power- and zone-run schemes, run-pass options, zone-read-run plays, play action and all of the counters built into those concepts, the most valuable defenders are the ones that have the ability to serve as a chess piece to neutralize it.
When players have limitations, NFL offenses exploit them. The defensive scheme is limited and the unit has to either live with being taken advantage of or commit help to those weaknesses and weakening other areas.
Safety hasn’t always been considered an important position for NFL teams to prioritize, but the offensive trends in the league are increasing the value of versatile safety play. The influx of athletic quarterbacks, scheme multiplicity and the pace of the offense are unique challenges that require more than ever out of defensive players. While offenses have never been more productive and it’s never been more difficult on defenses to stop them, McKinney is tailor-made for the challenge ahead.
“Being able to do different things at different positions, at different times of the game, I think that will help me in the league,” McKinney said. “I think just being able to do that will show coaches that I am able to do that at a high level. I think that will help me succeed in the league. … I’m the type of guy that I want to impact the game in every way that I can.”
McKinney has everything the NFL is looking for and that should put him in the running to be a first-round draft pick in April and the first safety to come off the board.