Xavier McKinney tracked Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts’ eyes, took the shortest route to the ball and leapt for the catch like a center fielder backed against the fence.
It was a great example of the type of reads turning McKinney into a star, though not quite as impressive as the anticipation fellow Giants safety Julian Love showed 40 yards away from the play, when he started confidently pointing to signal an interception before McKinney even got his hands on the ball.
“That’s how good he is,” Love shouted on the sideline. “We already knew it was a pick.”
McKinney is on his way to becoming the first defensive cornerstone to emerge from general manager Dave Gettleman’s four drafts. He has five interceptions in his last six games, and he has graded out as the top safety in the NFL by Pro Football Focus in two of the last four weeks.
“I’m trying to be a game-changer for my team so we’re able to win games,” McKinney said. “My biggest thing is just trusting what I see and going and getting it. Obviously, I’ve still got a lot of things I’ve got to practice and work on, which I do every day.”
Since Justin Tuck in 2005, the Giants have drafted only two defensive players who were named to a Pro Bowl before changing teams: Jason Pierre-Paul (2010) and Landon Collins (2015).
Like Collins, McKinney is a safety, an Alabama alum, an early second-round pick who surprisingly slipped out of the first, and a second-year breakout star. Unlike Collins — a 2016 Defensive Player of the Year candidate and three-time Pro Bowler for the Giants before signing a safety-record $84 million contract in Washington — McKinney is elite in coverage, which has changed the makeup of the defense.
“You’ve got to have someone back there who has the range and ability to play the deep part of the field sideline to sideline, but then also someone who has the awareness and instincts to get there and get a good jump on [the pass],” coach Joe Judge said. “The reality is that the arms of the quarterbacks in this league are better than the feet of the guys tracking them down in the deep part of the field.”
McKinney was the top-rated college safety in the 2020 class by at least 12 teams, former general manager Charley Casserly said as an analyst on NFL Network when the draft ended. Casserly named McKinney as the draft’s best pick after seeing him slip to No. 36 overall because of concerns about his speed, generated by a 4.63-second 40-yard dash at the combine.
McKinney was first of four safeties drafted in a 10-pick span that included the Buccaneers’ Antoine Winfield Jr. (PFF’s No. 2-graded safety this season), McKinney (No. 12), the Patriots’ Kyle Dugger (No. 27) and the Browns’ Grant Delpit (No. 64). Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s gamble to make McKinney (coming off an injury-shortened rookie body of work) a season-opening starter over veteran Jabrill Peppers has paid off.
“When you evaluated him coming out of college, you saw him all over the field making plays — blitzing, playing the deep part of the field, matching up in man [coverage],” Judge said. “We can use him in a lot of different ways. At this point, the most effective thing we can do with him for the betterment of the defense is playing a lot of the deep part of the field.”
NFL Network film guru Brian Baldinger described McKinney’s play against the Eagles as “near-perfect.” The #BaldysBreakdowns Twitter package highlighted maybe McKinney’s best play of the game — not the interception but rather a great jump to break up a would-be third-down conversion in the red zone against two-deep safety man-to-man underneath coverage on the final drive.
“He’s very intelligent,” Judge said. “He understands what he’s seen earlier in that game as well as on tape to calculate the formation along with the personnel and how they’re using it; what they’re going to get to.”
The Giants boast the NFL’s longest active streak with an interception in eight straight games, coinciding with McKinney playing all 571 defensive snaps during that stretch. In the five games where he hasn’t recorded a pick, McKinney has indirectly contributed.
“It just gives us more confidence as DBs knowing that we’ve got playmakers behind us,” Pro Bowl cornerback James Bradberry said. “We want to play aggressive so quarterbacks can throw it back there to try to test it.”