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Xavier McKinney believes Packers' defense 'could be really special'

Top free-agent addition assuming major leadership role in Green Bay

S Xavier McKinney
S Xavier McKinney

GREEN BAY – Tuesday's OTA practice hadn't been over for more than a half-hour and new Packers safety Xavier McKinney was already sitting at his locker, studying his tablet.

The quick review session wasn't just to pass the time, nor was it just to scrutinize his own play, though that's certainly included. It's become a regular part of his routine and has a larger purpose.

McKinney likes to find what he thinks the coaches' critiques are going to be for the players' post-practice meetings, and give his fellow DBs a heads-up as to what they're about to hear.

"As soon as we get off the practice field, I try to go over the film and just see the little things," McKinney said. "See if we had any MEs (mental errors), see how we played as a group, and as a back end, the secondary."

It's just one of many ways the Packers' prized free-agent addition to their new defense in 2024 has assumed a significant leadership role, particularly at the revamped safety position.

While McKinney has to balance learning new coordinator Jeff Hafley's defense himself with mentoring a roomful of rookie draft picks and other young, developmental prospects, he's charging full speed ahead.

After a college career at Alabama and four NFL seasons with the Giants, McKinney is by no means overwhelmed by anything Hafley is asking of him. They've already discussed all the coverages he's run and the various ways he can be used in the deep middle and near the line of scrimmage.

He's up for all of it. For every question about how much more he can handle, he might as well have a sign on his forehead that says "bring it on." In his vision-based coverages, Hafley will have McKinney calling a number of shots, and the former second-round pick wouldn't want it any other way.

"For sure," he said. "I'm a guy, I like to have the control a little bit and I like to be able to set the tone for the rest of the guys."

That's precisely the type of player Head Coach Matt LaFleur thought the Packers were getting when they signed McKinney in the opening hours of free agency. When he visited Green Bay and went out to dinner with multiple coaches, LaFleur's first impression – what he called his "initial gut feel" – was clear.

"That this is a dude," LaFleur said, "and my experience with him up to this point is exactly that.

"It's not a shock why he was a captain in New York."

McKinney said he was just being himself at that dinner, and nothing's changed since he arrived. He credits his new teammates and the culture around them for allowing him to be himself, which has helped him fit in quickly and seamlessly.

He's also letting the young safeties pick his brain whenever they want, and LaFleur finds that invaluable because fellow players often times can get inexperienced teammates up to speed faster than coaches can.

The process of putting Hafley's defense together is still in its infancy, but it's obvious McKinney is excited. There's a big emphasis on turnovers, understandable given the Packers intercepted just seven passes in the regular season last year, with only one player recording more than one.

But getting turned loose to make those plays can only come after the basic responsibilities are learned and reliably executed.

"Obviously we're building right now, but I know eventually we'll get to the point where he'll give us the keys and let us do our thing," said McKinney, who had a career-best five interceptions in 2021 and then three more last season.

"That builds confidence in a lot of people, because we don't have to go out there and be timid or think too much about stuff. We can just go out there and play, and the turnovers will come with it."

That all sounds great in theory, and time will tell what comes to fruition. Regardless, McKinney's style is to lead with enthusiasm and positivity, and that's what he's all about right now.

"I think we could be really special," he said. "The sky's the limit for us as a defense.

"It's going to be fun, man."

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