Nothing about Xavier McKinney’s first two months in the NFL have been normal.
From having to watch the virtual draft in his own home to attending the Giants’ offseason training activities by opening up his laptop, the regular indoctrination into the NFL has been thrown out the window.
But McKinney, the Giants’ second-round pick, has never been one to settle for what’s standard anyways. He has thrived while straying from the norm — as the free safety who often lined up at strong safety, cornerback, inside linebacker and outside linebacker at Alabama, the college stud who called his high school coaches after games to ask what he could do better, and the creative mind who draws and designs his own tattoos when he stops working on the field.
It may just be what makes McKinney well prepared to jump right into a starter’s role if and when the season begins in September, despite the unusual circumstances.
“The thing that separated him was he wanted to be uncomfortable in a room full of other dogs,” said Jermale Ransby, the defensive line coach at Roswell High School in Georgia. “He wanted to make sure he was the top dog. Just his work ethic, he’s probably the most consistent kid that I’ve seen in that group of all these guys that [went on to] play in college.
“As the young kids would say, he brought a lot of drip.”
Jermaine Phillips had followed the path McKinney wanted to be on — from Roswell to the SEC to the NFL to a Super Bowl, where Phillips won a ring with the Buccaneers as a rookie in 2002. A former safety himself, Phillips returned to his high school alma mater to coach defensive backs in 2014, when McKinney was a sophomore.
The staff Phillips joined had already started to learn about McKinney by then. Head coach John Ford had heard about him when he was an eighth grader and took note of him when the middle school team would practice on the field after the varsity. He went to one of their games, saw McKinney play and thought, “Holy cow. This kid’s got some juice to him.”
“As the young kids would say, he brought a lot of drip.” — Jermale Ransby, the defensive line coach at Roswell High School in Georgia, on Xavier McKinney
Ransby’s first interaction with McKinney was a disciplinary one. He had gotten an email from an English teacher who had a freshman acting up in class. Ransby told McKinney that if he wanted to play varsity one day, he had to get his act straight. It was the only time they ever had to talk about it.
But by the time Phillips began coaching, McKinney had made the varsity team as a sophomore. He had the raw talent to play, except there was a senior in front of him getting more of the playing time in a rotation at safety. Roswell was playing its rival, Milton, early in the season when the situation hit a fork in the road.
“[He] kind of threw a little fit and pouted,” Phillips said.
McKinney felt he deserved to play. Phillips agreed, but wanted him to understand the flow of the game and told him to be ready when his time was called. After avoiding Phillips for a short time, McKinney came back and told him he would never give him another reason to think that he didn’t deserve to be on the field.
“He always accepts the challenge,” Phillips said. “He turned it up another notch.”
McKinney began his junior year holding offers from Alabama and Clemson, among others, and first committed to Alabama that fall. But he didn’t let it change his drive. He helped Roswell reach the state championship — and then did it again his senior year, though the Hornets lost in the final both times.
On a team packed with Division I recruits, McKinney separated himself from the rest.
“He just always had a little bit different level of focus than people his same age,” Ford said.
McKinney stuck mostly to free safety, but had some freedom to move around. Often, he took it upon himself to figure out who the opponent’s No. 1 weapon was and “erase[d] him,” Ford said. Other times he would be in the box, and even when coaches didn’t call for him to blitz, he would see something and blitz anyways, picking up the sack. When he did stay in his natural position and roam center field, he could strike there, too.
Whatever he was doing, the way he moved always impressed his coaches.
“He looks like he is in perfect control of his body and moving faster than people that are exerting themselves at 110 percent,” Ford said. “There’s a fluidity and a smoothness to how he plays the game that is just rare.”
“He just kind of floated and glided,” Phillips said. “His body control has been A-1 since Day 1.”
Though he later decommitted from Alabama, McKinney still eventually ended up in Tuscaloosa — enrolling early after graduating high school in December.
McKinney played mostly special teams as a freshman before making the jump to the Crimson Tide’s starting strong safety as a sophomore, replacing 2018 first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick. He immediately became an impact player, earning Defensive MVP honors in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma before Alabama lost the national championship game.
As a junior he transitioned to free safety, but his talent and football IQ allowed Nick Saban to move him around as he pleased. He played 393 snaps at safety, 166 at cornerback, 120 at inside linebacker and 113 at outside linebacker, according to ESPN.
After games, he would talk to Phillips and Ransby — who had gone from being just coaches to McKinney’s mentors and big brothers — about what they saw. He didn’t want someone to tell him how good he was, he wanted to know how he could get even better. In the offseason, he would go back to Roswell and work with Ransby on pass-rushing drills, part of his game that he viewed just as important as footwork and Cover-2’s.
“He’s a sponge,” Ransby said.
That’s part of what made McKinney — the latest in a strong tradition of dynamic safeties to come out of Alabama, including Fitzpatrick, Eddie Jackson, Landon Collins and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix — one of Saban’s favorites.
“Because he’s smart, because he works hard, because he’s competitive,” Ford said. “You never have to worry whether Xavier’s going to compete.”
Even McKinney’s doodles are different. He turned them into tattoos, with his own drawings of cartoon characters like the Tasmanian Devil, Minions and Marvin the Martian now inked across his body.
But the first tattoo McKinney got, back when he was a sophomore at Roswell, still serves as a daily reminder. On one bicep: Humble. On the other: Hungry.
“He got that because he always wanted to remind himself of where he needs to be, he’s never done enough and he pushes himself to the limit,” Ransby said.
If a pandemic doesn’t get in the way, McKinney will take that mindset to the field with him this fall, expected to team up with Jabrill Peppers to form the Giants’ new safety tandem. He hasn’t had the benefit of actually practicing in the Giants system with his new teammates just yet, but those close to McKinney have always seen him work to be mentally and physically prepared for whatever challenges come his way. They don’t expect this one to be any different.
“A kid who always had tremendous talent, but even more than that, he was a student of the game,” said Phillips, who sees an Ed Reed-type potential in McKinney.
“The fact that the love for the game and the way he approaches it, who knows what can happen. I wouldn’t even say the sky’s the limit — the sky’s going to be the standard for him. What’s beyond that, who knows?”