Skip to main content

Xavier McKinney is 'game-changing' addition for Packers' defense

Green Bay still weighing its options over second starting safety spot

Xavier McKinney
Xavier McKinney

GREEN BAY – During his introductory news conference in February, Jeff Hafley was asked what he desires from a post safety responsible for covering centerfield in his defense.

The new Packers' defensive coordinator offered the type of response you'd expect from a coach whose background is strongly rooted in the secondary.

"I want a guy who can erase things," said Hafley on Feb. 22. "If a run hits up the middle, this guy's gotta come out of the middle field with his hair on fire; he's gotta be able to get a guy down.

"I also want him to be a guy, when a ball carrier is wrapped up, he goes, and he finishes off the pile. I want a guy who can go from sideline to sideline and take the ball away."

Twenty-one days later, the Packers signed Xavier McKinney to be that guy.

The 24-year-old safety was widely regarded as the top free agent at his position following a promising four-year run with the New York Giants in which McKinney tallied 277 tackles (179 solo), 27 passes defensed, nine interceptions (one for a touchdown), and two forced fumbles in 49 regular-season games with 46 starts.

McKinney's production and upside had the Packers questioning whether the 6-foot, 201-pound safety would even make it to the open market. Green Bay still did its research given a clear need at the position after a challenging 2023 campaign in which Week 1 starters Darnell Savage and Rudy Ford missed a combined 11 regular-season games.

When the Giants opted not to place the franchise tag on McKinney last month, Green Bay General Manager Brian Gutekunst was primed to pounce on the fifth-year veteran.

"I just think he's a unique player to come available," said Gutekunst at last week's NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando. "One of the top safeties in the game, a guy who can be a game-changing type player. He really fits a little bit of the criteria we're looking for in a free agent – not only as a player but as a leader back there.

"Obviously, extensively scouted him through college and liked him quite a bit coming out. He's done nothing in his time in the NFL to change that."

McKinney figures to be a centerpiece of Hafley's defense, which operates out of a 4-3 base alignment and favors a single-high post safety patrolling the back end. During the lead up to the 2020 NFL Draft, many pundits felt McKinney fit well into a Cover-1 scheme due to his speed, ranginess, and high football IQ.

His playstyle has validated those projections. Along with being a two-time team captain for the Giants, McKinney made waves during his second NFL season when he tied for fourth in the NFL with five interceptions. While a broken hand cost him eight games in 2022, McKinney rebounded to play all 1,128 defensive snaps last season.

Two plays spoke the most to Head Coach Matt LaFleur about who McKinney is as a playmaker – his back-to-back interceptions in last season's finale against the Philadelphia Eagles. The first came on a sensational toe-dragging INT near the sideline that officials initially missed. The ruling was overturned upon further review.

"I love just his ability to make plays on the ball," LaFleur said. "You've seen it over the course of his career.

"In that Philly game … he makes an unbelievable interception on the sideline, and then the very next play they try to run a screen and he dissects the screen and jumps in front and picks off the ball. Like back-to-back plays with two interceptions – anytime you have a guy who can take the ball away, that just is what you're looking for in all your players."

With McKinney in the fold, the Packers must now determine how they'll go about handling the other safety spot. Former 2023 seventh-round pick Anthony Johnson Jr. undoubtedly has a shot at it after racking up 23 tackles, three passes defensed and an interception in 12 games with four spot starts as a rookie.

There is a smattering of veteran options still available, including former All-Pros Justin Simmons and Micah Hyde. Gutekunst also could look to replicate the quick rebuild he executed on the back end in 2019 when he traded up to draft Savage in the first round after signing Adrian Amos away from Chicago as an unrestricted free agent.

"We'd always prefer to have a young guy that's going to have his best football ahead of him (but) we'll look at all options as we go forward," Gutekunst said. "Certainly, we'll have the draft coming up, which will be important. We've had some success finding guys after the draft in the free-agent market that have fit us very well."

Owens is a good example of a veteran addition during the second wave of free agency. Signed on May 12, 2023, the 5-foot-11 safety wound up starting 11 of his 17 regular-season appearances and finished as the Packers' fourth-leading tackler (74).

Whatever direction the Packers go over the next month, LaFleur and Hafley see McKinney as a catalyst to helping the defense get where it wants to go in 2024 and beyond.

"Before we got him, there were definitely some holes at the safety position in regards to a guy that's proven himself," LaFleur said. "We had some young guys that we're excited about, but (it'll help) just having a veteran presence that's been able to play at a really high level.

"I think he's one of the better safeties in the league obviously, with how much he got paid. But his ability to take the ball away, I can't emphasize that enough."

Related Content