As safety Xavier McKinney stood in front of reporters at the scouting combine, he was asked about the stars he crossed paths with at the University of Alabama.
What was it like practicing against quarterback Tua Tagovailoa? How hard is it trying to cover the Crimson Tide’s bevy of receivers, including Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, who are expected to be top-15 picks? What would coach Nick Saban say about McKinney?
“I think he would say a lot of great things,” McKinney said in February. “Me and him, over the years, we’ve grown, our relationship has grown. At first it was a little rough my freshman year. I used to think he didn’t really like me.
“But over the years, I think we’ve grown. He’s come to trust me, have a lot of trust in me and a lot of faith in me, so I think you would hear a lot of great things from him.”
McKinney is right. Saban gave a glowing scouting report last week during a phone interview with The Chronicle-Telegram.
The Browns have a pressing need at safety, and McKinney is considered by many the best one in the NFL Draft. If the Browns find a left tackle elsewhere (trade for Washington’s Trent Williams or sign free agent Jason Peters), trade down from No. 10 or trade up from No. 41, McKinney would be an option.
“He’s got a lot of diversity as a player,” Saban said. “He’s physical, he’s very aggressive, he can run fast enough, he’s a good enough cover guy. So, to me, he’s more of the prototype safety that people are looking for now.”
McKinney (6-foot, 201 pounds) was a first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection and third-team All-American. He led Alabama with 95 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and three sacks.
“It means a lot to him,” Saban said. “The guy’s a hard worker, really wants to learn and do his job well and he’s easy to coach. I think he’s a really good player.
“I always emphasize with him you’ve got to be able to play the ball in the deep part of the field, he’s worked hard on that. He’s made of the right stuff.”
McKinney, who declared for the draft after his junior season, ran a 4.63-second 40-yard dash at the combine before cramping up and shutting down for the day. Earlier he vertical jumped 36 inches, broad jumped 10-2 and bench pressed 225 pounds 19 times.
He led the SEC last season with four forced fumbles and added three interceptions — one returned 81 yards for a touchdown — five pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. The turnovers stand out on his resume.
“We really emphasize (that),” Saban said. “But it’s amazing how some guys make that a part of their game and they go out there and they can tackle and try to strip the ball and apply the techniques of the best way to get it out. And some guys it never seems to calibrate into a part of their game.
“I guess it’d be like some guys can bunt in baseball and some guys can’t. It’s not that you don’t teach them all how to do it, and it’s something that everybody could do, but some guys never, ever make it a part of what they do. But he’s really good at that. He’s very instinctive, so I think that goes a long way to helping guys apply some of these things you try to teach them.”
Saban employed McKinney, a two-year starter, across the defense. He lined up as a deep safety, played in the box and covered receivers in the slot. The tools needed to play the three roles will come in handy in the NFL.
“The versatility I had at school, being able to do different things at different positions, at different times of the game, I think that will help me in the league,” he said. “I’m the type of guy that I want to impact the game in every way that I can.”
McKinney acknowledged the various responsibilities made his life more difficult. He would watch film before and after practice and put in extra time studying the game plan.
“That’s fun to me. Being able to watch other people to see what their tendencies are,” he said. “Sometimes I can look at what they do and try to mimic what they might be doing so it puts me in a better position to be able to stop them.”
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah ranks McKinney as the No. 18 overall prospect and he’s expected to be drafted in the second half of the first round. LSU’s Grant Delpit, Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr., California’s Ashtyn Davis and Southern Illinois’ Jeremy Chinn are considered a notch below and could be options for the Browns at No. 41.
McKinney called himself a strong blitzer and was adamant his coverage skills are underrated.
“It’s not talked about enough,” he said. “If you ask anybody that I’ve played against or even my teammates, they’ll say that I can cover and I can do it very well. I think I’m a technician.”