The New England Patriots’ safety corps has been one of the best in the NFL ever since Patrick Chung returned from his one-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014. Since then, he and fellow safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon have been the backbone of three Super Bowl-winning defensive backfields and as reliable a position group as any on New England’s roster. However, the times they are a-changin’ for the group.
Not only will McCourty and Chung both be 33 years old when the new NFL season is scheduled to kick off in September, the team also opted to trade Harmon to the Detroit Lions earlier this month. While former Los Angeles Chargers safety Adrian Phillips was signed as a potential depth option alongside second-year Patriot Terrence Brooks, the team’s long-term outlook remains somewhat uncertain.
Luckily for the Patriots, this year’s draft features plenty of talent at the position, with one player in particular standing out as a potential first-round option: Alabama’s Xavier McKinney. Let’s take a closer look at him.
Name: Xavier McKinney
2019 stats: 13 games; 95 tackles (5.5 tackles for loss); 4 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery; 3 interceptions (1 touchdown); 3.0 sacks
Size: 6003, 201 lbs
Expected round: 1st
Strengths: The first thing that jumps off the page when looking at McKinney’s tape and usage is his versatility. Whether it is free safety, box safety or slot cornerback, Alabama moved him all over the formation to create favorable matchups. And despite having a lot of information to digest from all the different spots, the young defender hit the challenges in stride and proved himself one of the best players in all of college football the last two years.
What helps him is his high football IQ and impressive athleticism: McKinney has outstanding progressing skills, reads plays and route combinations very well, and can react accordingly due to his quick-area burst and impressive fluidity. He also displays considerable patience when used in the deep center field, but is aggressive attacking the football when in the air. He also knows how to follow pass catchers in man-to-man situations, and mirrors them well no matter his initial alignment.
Furthermore, McKinney is a functionally sound tackler and good player against the run: he diagnoses play-action well, and is physical at the point of attack when playing near the box. He also has the necessary size to serve as a so-called money linebacker at the next level, meaning that he can switch between strong safety and linebacker alignments without much of a problem.
Weaknesses: McKinney is a pro-ready player that should be able to make an immediate impact in Year One, but there are still areas of his game he can improve. He needs to get better at reading leverage versus passing targets and also is inconsistent with his angles from time to time, resulting in a far-from-ideal tackling form. Furthermore, McKinney may not be best suited to serve in a Devin McCourty-like role due to a comparative lack of range: his 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the combine is not indicative of a player who doesn’t possess the necessary speed, but it might still impact his eventual role in the NFL.
What would be his role? Given his versatility, McKinney would likely serve as a developmental and package-specific super-backup behind both McCourty and Chung — and potential heir to one of them. As for 2020, his playing time would possibly depend on the roles of Phillips and Brooks: if he can beat out at least one of them, he could serve as either the number two strong (Phillips’ projected role) or free safety (Brooks’ projected role). That said, he would likely be moved all over the formation to take advantage of his diverse skillset.
How many downs can he play? While Alabama used McKinney on all four downs, he would likely not be an every-down player in New England upon his arrival. As noted above, it seems more realistic to think that the Patriots would use him in a package-specific role — similar to how they employed Duron Harmon during his seven seasons with the team.
What is his special teams value? The Crimson Tide employed McKinney quite a bit in the kicking game, and he could see action as a gunner from Day One in the NFL. In that sense, he would serve as a potential upgrade over Harmon: the Patriots used their long-time third safety rather irregularly on special teams since 2017.
Does he have positional versatility? McKinney might be the most versatile defensive back in the entire draft this year, and a look at his snap numbers from his final year in college shows this (via Pro Football Focus’ 2020 NFL Draft Guide):
Box safety (285 snaps; 34.5%)
Free safety (271 snaps; 32.8%)
Slot cornerback (227 snaps; 27.5%)
Defensive line (38 snaps; 4.6%)
Perimeter cornerback (5 snaps; 0.6%)
Alabama’s coaching staff used McKinney wherever it saw fit based on opposing offenses — a usage that likely would be in the books for him as well in case the Patriots draft him.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? While Devin McCourty’s recent contract extension makes him a de facto lock to be with the Patriots beyond 2020, the same cannot be said for Patrick Chung: despite his role as a team leader and a player still performing at a starting-caliber level, his age and injury history might lead the team to start phasing him out of the operation by the 2021 season. In turn, McKinney would be a prime candidate to take on more responsibilities — unless the team sees him as McCourty’s heir.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Given that the Patriots would have to draft McKinney in the first round next month, his spot on the roster would be safe. That said, his playing time would be dependent on whether or not he can beat out fellow depth safeties Adrian Phillips and Terrence Brooks.
Why the Patriots? Even though Phillips and Brooks are solid depth options behind McCourty and Chung, the two starters’ advanced age creates a need at the position. Adding McKinney would certainly address it, and give the Patriots flexibility at both positions: the Alabama product could fill in as both a deep and box safety, depending on where the team projects his ceiling to be the highest and its need to be the biggest. Long-term projections aside, he could also help the Patriots fill Harmon’s old spot as early as 2020.
Why not the Patriots? Even with Harmon headed for Detroit, New England’s secondary remains the most talented in the NFL. The cornerback depth chart is as good as any position group in football, while the safety position added considerable versatility by the signing of Phillips. Add young developmental options such as second-year man Joejuan Williams — a possible safety convert himself — and it would not be surprising if New England opted to use the 23rd overall pick to fill other needs on the roster.
Verdict: While Xavier McKinney would help the Patriots in 2020 as a potential third/fourth safety, the team would draft him with the future in mind: he would be the prime candidate to take over for either Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung at one point in the future. That said, it remains to be seen how the team values his upside and long-term outlook in comparison to a roster that is relatively set at the position but would benefit from additional talent being added elsewhere. McKinney would therefore certainly not be a bad selection near the end of the first round, but one that would not necessarily address a present need.