EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Xavier McKinney's truncated debut season has left him conflicted.
"It feels like year two, obviously it's year two, but I still feel like I'm a rookie, just because I haven't played a lot of games yet," McKinney said after the Giants' training camp practice today. "I still got a lot of learn, a lot to improve on, so I just take it one day at a time to improve and get better."
McKinney is indeed a second-year pro and both he and the Giants are confident it will be a productive season. That was the expectation last year, when McKinney was the team's second-round draft choice, No. 36 overall. The former University of Alabama standout had a good chance to be an opening day starting safety before suffering a fractured foot in camp. He underwent surgery and missed the season's first 10 games.
"You genuinely feel bad for any player when they get hurt," coach Joe Judge said. "We all want to make sure we all put our players at every position to be safe and stay on the field. Now, I know how much it means to him. He's a guy that definitely loves the game. He comes at it and works extremely hard. He's very attentive in the meetings. He's a great communicator with us in terms of what he does and doesn't understand and what he needs help with. He was really having a good day of practice when he got hurt."
Although Jabrill Peppers and Logan Ryan were entrenched as the team's safeties when he returned, McKinney provided glimpses of his potential in the final six weeks, including starts in each of the last four games. He was at his best in the final two contests, with eight tackles (season-high seven solo) at Baltimore on Dec. 27 and eight stops (four solo) the following week against Dallas. He helped secure the Giants' victory against the Cowboys when he intercepted an Andy Dalton pass in the end zone for his first career pick with 1:15 remaining in the game.
"We didn't need that to see he was going to be the player we thought he was going to be," coach Joe Judge said. "He had a lot of potential and he works hard. That was really the first time that he was able to physically go out there and do that for a moment to give himself an opportunity to make some plays."
"I think playing all of those games, it helped me going into this year," McKinney said, "But, like I said time and time again, I'm just trying to improve. Last season don't really matter. The past is the past, so just trying to take it day-in and day-out, one day at a time with my teammates to get better and improve, so I can make more of those plays.
McKinney remained closely involved with the team, and particularly the secondary, during his lengthy absence. In addition to diligently following his physical rehabilitation, McKinney was kept busy by the coaches through weekly research projects and presentations.
"I had little objectives to kind of achieve, which was just figuring out tendencies from the other team, kind of what the quarterbacks do, what the receivers' tendencies were," McKinney said. "So, I had a job as that was concerned, and all the little things a normal rookie has to do. I made sure to just take care of that job because that was my primary job at the time and obviously rehabbing, so I took care of that and just trying to gain the trust of my teammates and that was what I was doing."
Judge said that mental work was instrumental in McKinney's ability to step in and contribute immediately upon his return.
"Initially, you go through practice and make some adjustments," Judge said. "But in the back of your mind, you are thinking about the player whether it's – focus really when we found that he was going to be out the duration of, 'OK, what can we do to help him along the way?' What you can't have is, put someone on the backburner and think when they come back, we'll go ahead and start all over again. So, for us, the focus with X was just keep the movement every day. He'll do physically what he can do with the trainers and strength coaches. Mentally, as coaches, we have to keep him involved and that includes extra meetings, some of the virtual meetings where our guys are a little bit more on their feet and walking around and kind of getting some of the things simulated. We teach in different ways, so we don't always teach sitting in a chair. We want to make sure we can simulate as much as you can for him to keep him progressing and he did a great job.
"We gave him assignments last year to kind of give him a preview of the personnel and some scheme-based things and that really helps grow the player to understand the opponent and how they have to shape their thinking around getting ready for a game. It changes every week. He did a really good job for us the last week (of the season). The other thing about him too is you want to give these players and these situations a platform to have to present to their teammates. It gives not only them confidence in the material they're studying, but they'll talk to their teammates about the communication in practice and it gives the teammates confidence to understand how they're preparing and just seeing the progression. But we did get him back later in the season. The goal was to build him in over time and make sure that he was set to go, that he was ready to go. When he was, he was able to make an impact for us down the stretch."
McKinney is grateful he had that opportunity. But he's not dwelling on it as he prepares for a new season.
"Last year, man, I'm not worried about it," he said. "I'm focused on my team and this year. Just going into the season, and proving every day, getting better, and just going into the season strong.
"My mindset doesn't change no matter what happens. I try to go out here and get better for my team, for my teammates, and my coaches. But, you know, that's always my mindset: that I could be a big-time player and that's what I'm out here to work on every day."
View must-see photos of the Giants on the practice field from Day 2 of training camp on Thursday.