Xavier McKinney the key to Giants’ defensive backfield

The Giants believe Xavier McKinney can do a great deal, which is why they were thrilled he was on the board in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

An injury cost McKinney most of his rookie season, so the safety from Alabama could not show everything he has to give. He is healthy now, though, and has a reminder for those who may have forgotten about him.

“I can do it all,’’ McKinney said Thursday after practice. “From the very first day that I have talked about, I’ve always said I can do it all, I still believe that. There’s nowhere you can’t play me. So, that’s how I see it and that’s how I go into it.’’

If it is indeed true that there is nowhere the Giants cannot play McKinney, their defensive backfield could be something special. McKinney is that important to the way this tumbles out.

He is a strong safety with range. He has enough cornerback skills to play against a slot receiver. He can creep up and come on a blitz. He can go sideline-to-sideline and patrol the back end. If defensive coordinator Patrick Graham can move McKinney around based on the plan of attack for each specific week, and if McKinney can excel wherever he lands, well, this could be quite an awakening.

“It feels like Year 2,’’ McKinney said. “Obviously, it’s Year 2, but I still feel like I’m a rookie just because I haven’t played a lot of games yet.’’

Everything was proceeding according to plan for McKinney last summer, until Aug. 26, when he suffered a fractured foot in practice. Just like that, all those plans for an immediate and big splash were dashed. He resided on injured reserve, the Giants gave their prize rookie all the time he needed to mend and, once activated on Nov. 28, took it nice and slow with him.

Five snaps in his NFL debut in a victory over the Bengals. Six snaps in a victory in Seattle. Then, some serious playing time for McKinney, as down the stretch he became a starter and played 38, 41 and 46 snaps before all the wraps were removed in the season finale. McKinney played 89 percent (74 snaps) of the plays on defense as the Giants — at the time still alive to win the NFC East — beat the Cowboys. McKinney had eight tackles (four solo, one for loss) and his first career interception, a perfect sendoff in an imperfect first year.

“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.’’

New York Giants safety Xavier McKinney runs at training camp
Xavier McKinney
Corey Sipkin

Once the initial shock of the injury wore off, Judge went to work making sure McKinney stayed involved.

“When you get that news, you see him go down, you don’t know exactly where it’s at,’’ Judge said. “Initially, you go through practice and make some adjustments, but in the back of your mind, you are thinking about the player … 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 back burner and think when they come back, we’ll go ahead and start all over again.’’

Judge gave McKinney assignments each week — scout the opposing quarterback and wide receivers, pick up tendencies, search for strengths and weaknesses. McKinney actually had to make presentations to his older teammates.

“I took care of that and just trying to gain the trust of my teammates and that was what I was doing,’’ McKinney said.

That is what he did.

“I noticed he’s a smart guy,’’ cornerback James Bradberry said. “A physical guy on the field, very athletic. You got to be pretty smart to play in this system and the fact he can pick up anything you throw at him is a positive.’’

A sailing pass in Thursday’s practice could have been an interception for McKinney — who has black braids flowing from the right side of his head and blond braids flowing from the left — but he could not secure the ball. He was not happy with himself about that.

“I definitely should have caught that one,’’ he said. “I’m a little bit upset about that one. We’ll go back and look at it, but next time, I’ll catch that one.’’

The Giants expect that he will.

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