The Times examines the best prospects ahead of the NFL draft from April 23-25.
Call it security, if you like. Put it in a box, if you have to. But Xavier McKinney of Alabama is at his best without limits.
His trainer, Nick Saban, certainly understood this. He put his playmaker without position on the field last season – 323 snaps in the box, 227 in the slot, 271 deep. On any game, McKinney could line up anywhere on the field.
Against the eventual national champion Louisiana State, at the most important moment of the Alabama season, Saban found another new role for his star safety. At the start of the third quarter, McKinney slowly crept to the line of scrimmage. At the snap, he screamed on the edge during a blitz, passing the left tackle of the LSU to strip quarterback Joe Burrow, who should be the first choice in the general classification.
The Crimson Tide eventually lost, but not for lack of effort from McKinney, who finished with a pair of bags to go with 13 tackles. This is the type of performance that came to define his stay in Tuscaloosa and, if you ask him, it is precisely what distinguishes him as the best security in this project.
“I am very versatile,” said McKinney. “You can see it on the tape. I can do whatever you want me to do. And I do it well. I think that’s the most important thing, just to know that no matter how the game turns out, whether we win or lose, I’m going to go strong. I will put 110 percent in each game. And you see that in my cassette. I think that is something that separates me from these other securities here. “
McKinney is not the only one with the security that the knife skills of the Swiss army have made him a coveted prospect. Isaiah Simmons of Clemson, who should be one of the top 10 players and primarily identify as linebacker, played a similar role. Grant Delpit of LSU, who won the Jim Thorpe award against McKinney as the best defensive back in the country, alternated between the roles of nickel, linebacker and safety.
It seems like the number of true prospects with no security position has never been higher, but as NFL defenses evolve, the role has never been more important. Safeties that used to be considered tweens are now seen as a specialized class of playmakers, capable of being deployed wherever they might be most needed.
For McKinney, this is a role he has been preparing for since arriving in Alabama. As a junior, he decided to watch an additional movie before and after training, hoping to digest everything he could on each defense position.
“It’s fun for me,” said McKinney, “to be able to watch others to see what their trends are. Sometimes I can watch what they are doing and try to imitate what they could do, so that puts me in a better position to be able to stop them. “
In the box, there were few safeties in college football more capable of stopping. But as NFL teams question whether McKinney deserves a pick in the first round, some scouts have raised questions about his cover skills.
McKinney gave three touchdowns and 353 yards on 59 passes (5.98 yards per attempt) as a junior – a slight drop from a second-year breakout campaign. But McKinney thinks the questions about his hedging skills are unfounded.
“If you ask someone I played against or even my teammates they will say I can cover and I can do it very well,” said McKinney. “I’m a technician. I think it’s something we don’t really talk about.”
Say what you want about where McKinney is best suited to play, but over two seasons at the helm of one of the best defenses in the nation, he’s proven he’s capable of almost anything.
“I just want to make an impact on the game in every way possible,” said McKinney.