NFL draft: It’s safety in number of positions Alabama’s Xavier McKinney can play
The Times examines the top prospects ahead of the NFL draft, to be held April 23-25.
Call him a safety, if you’d like. Fit him into a box, if you must. But Alabama’s Xavier McKinney is at his best without boundaries.
His coach, Nick Saban, certainly understood that. He put his positionless playmaker all over the field last season — 323 snaps in the box, 227 in the slot, 271 deep. On any given play, McKinney could be lined anywhere on the field.
Against eventual national champion Louisiana State, at the most important juncture of Alabama’s season, Saban found yet another new role for his star safety. Early in the third quarter, McKinney crept slowly to the line of scrimmage. At the snap, he screamed off the edge on a blitz, bursting past LSU’s left tackle to strip quarterback Joe Burrow, expected to be the top overall pick.
The Crimson Tide ultimately lost, but not for lack of effort from McKinney, who finished with a pair of sacks to go with 13 tackles. It was the type of performance that came to define his time in Tuscaloosa and, if you ask him, it’s precisely what distinguishes him as the best safety in this draft.
“I’m very versatile,” McKinney said. “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.”
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McKinney isn’t the only safety whose Swiss Army knife skills have made him a coveted prospect. Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons, who’s expected to be a top-10 pick and identifies primarily as a linebacker, played a similar role. LSU’s Grant Delpit, who won the Jim Thorpe Award over McKinney as the nation’s best defensive back, shuffled between nickel, linebacker, and safety roles.
It appears the number of true positionless prospects at safety has never been higher, but as NFL defenses evolve, the role never has been as important. Safeties once considered tweeners are now seen as a specialized class of playmakers, capable of being deployed wherever they might be needed most.
For McKinney, it’s a role he’s been preparing for since he arrived at Alabama. As a junior, he resolved to watch extra film before and after practice, in hopes of digesting everything he could about every position on defense.
Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa are all expected to be first-round picks in the NFL draft. The question is: When will they be off the board?
“That’s fun to me,” McKinney said, “being able to watch other people to see what their tendencies are. Sometimes I can look at what they do and try to mimic what they might be doing so it 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 making a stop. But as NFL teams consider whether McKinney is worth a first-round pick, some scouts have raised questions about his cover skills.
McKinney gave up three touchdowns and 353 yards on 59 passes (5.98 yards per attempt) as a junior — a slight drop-off from a breakout sophomore campaign. But McKinney believes questions about his coverage skills are unfounded.
“If you ask anybody that I’ve played against or even my teammates, they’ll say that I can cover and I can do it very well,” McKinney said. “I’m a technician. I think that’s something that’s not really talked about.”
Say what you will about where McKinney is best suited to play, but over two seasons leading one of the nation’s best defenses he has proven he’s capable of pretty much anything.
“I just want to impact the game in every way that I can,” McKinney said.
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