After the 2016 NFL season, the Falcons were looking at how to battle back from a Super Bowl that didn’t go quite as planned. The rebuilding defense failed to slow down a late-game comeback that we won’t talk about now, so it makes sense that Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff focused on defensive help in the offseason help.
Up against the cap, the Falcons made a solid move by adding former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dontari Poe on a one-year deal as their premier move in free agency. However, the results in the following NFL draft were not anywhere near as good. The Falcons traded up for Takkarist McKinley in the first round, before later snagging Duke Riley in the third round. Neither defender finished out their rookie contract with the Falcons.
McKinley is the bigger bust of the two, made even worse by the fact the Falcons traded up for the defensive end, and skipped over Pro Bowl pass rusher T.J. Watt and corner Tre’Davious White.
How did the Falcons end up with McKinley instead of Watt? The Falcons obviously scouted the position and were intent on selecting the best pass rusher they could grab. Clearly the risk of losing their guy was worth giving up extra picks. In moving up for McKinley, the Falcons gave up their 3rd and 7th round selections, picks 95 and 249, respectively.
I remember McKinley’s scouting reports and he sounded like a Quinn player. At least the sort of player Quinn talked about but rarely got to turn the corner into a solid contributor.
Look at our Eric Robinson’s scouting report on McKinley and the selection makes sense.
McKinley has an impressive, athletic frame, especially given his ‘freakish’ ability and skill set. While he timed a head-turning 4.59 40-yard dash, it was his 10-yard split of 1.61 that had the scouts talking. During his senior season in 2016, McKinley raked in 10 sacks plus 18.5 tackles for loss, six pass deflections and three forced fumbles.
Similar to Vic Beasley’s scouting reports, McKinley appeared to rely wholly on his athleticism in college and would need some serious coaching. We may have thought Dan Quinn could have done the latter in 2016, but in 2020 we know that was not possible.
Stephen White, formerly of SB Nation, wrote some fairly iconic scouting reports with a focus on defensive linemen. His thoughts on McKinley? In his view, McKinley was not a first-round talent who relied too heavily on his athleticism and padded his stats while rarely winning in one-on-one situations.
That isn’t to say that, with some good coaching, McKinley can’t get better. I suspect he will. But his lack of size and poor pass rush technique as an edge rusher mean he is going to be more of a project, and I am not sure how many GMs are going to wait after they take him in the first round.
Even Pro Football Focus noticed the problems.
Wore down easily; had some very low-effort reps
Most of his “wow” plays come unblocked and not defeating blocks
Disappeared in a handful of game (Washington State, Arizona State)
Sports Illustrated noted more of the same.
He makes a ton of effort plays, but those plays are there to be had because his initial probing tends to come up empty.
If we are looking at the sum of multiple scouting reports, the team that drafted McKinley had to be damn certain they can coach him up. The Falcons never had those coaches, and that doesn’t even address McKinley’s mental concerns. Maybe we should question who is running those interviews.
It isn’t really enough to just say that McKinley was a bust. Or even that they missed on White. The Falcons thought they were set at corner and needed a pass rusher. Passing over a Pro Bowl pass rusher for a guy who made it three-and-one-half years is more problematic.
Let’s look at T.J. Watt. The Falcons had checked out the top pass rushers of the draft class, and were in striking distance of McKinley, Taco Charlton, and Watt, assuming they were interested in only a moderate trade up. Watt now has 41.5 career sacks, easily eclipsing McKinley’s 17.5.
What did scouting reports say? Watt had the same size concerns as McKinley but had the bigger frame and height to put on weight to get closer to prototypical size. While Watt lacked that explosive first step, he had nearly everything else: great in the run game, non-stop motor, a pass rush move (!), with both players being one-year wonders with injury concerns. Clear risk for both players with McKinley seeming to have the bigger question marks.
Regardless, the Falcons missed and they missed bad. Of course, so did the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys who drafted Charles Harris and Taco Charlton, respectively. Yet, the Falcons failed to properly evaluate the players regardless of what the scouting reports had to say. More importantly, the Falcons overvalued their ability to coach up a raw player (twice if we include Riley).
The Falcons grabbed top pass rushers in 2015 and 2017, being their first serious investment in the pass rush since Thomas Dimitroff came to Flowery Branch. Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers picked up players the Falcons passed on, leaving some to ask if the Steelers have the best pass rush duo in the NFL. Atlanta will instead be starting over. That’s a big reason why the Steelers are the best team in the NFL and the Falcons are handing out pink slips.