xavier mckinney giants
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Second-year safety Xavier McKinney has stepped up for the Giants in recent weeks.

The Giants may have found a gem in the 2020 draft’s second round after all.

After a rookie campaign in which he showed some flashes but mainly dealt with an injury, Big Blue safety Xavier McKinney is truly coming into his own this year and has become somewhat of a ballhawk. The second-year player out of Alabama picked off his fifth pass of the season on Sunday and played a crucial role in the team’s 13-7 win over Philly.

McKinney’s not exactly a liability in the deep part of the field, which surely assists the cornerbacks in front of him.

“I think it just gives us more confidence as defensive backs knowing that we’ve got playmakers behind us that are going to go back there and make plays anytime a quarterback attempts to throw it deep on us,” cornerback James Bradberry told the media Monday. “We’ve just got more confidence in our guys around us when you see them making plays like that. We’re happy to see [McKinney] make plays like that. We want to play aggressive so quarterbacks can throw it back there to try to test it.”

Head coach Joe Judge and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham preach versatility. It’s a quality they saw in McKinney during his tenure with the Crimson Tide and a trait he seems to be unlocking at the professional level.

His interception off Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts was one you try to show a young defensive back. Xavier did everything perfectly — he utilized great timing when reaching the targeted receiver with the ball in the air, implemented superb vision to locate the football while keeping a secure base, and attempted to catch the ball at its highest point.

The athletic and intelligent football move awarded the Giants with another second-half possession in a 10-point game.

“You’ve got to have someone back there in the deep part of the field, number one, who has the range and ability to go ahead and play the deep part of the field sideline to sideline, but then also someone who has the awareness and instincts to get there and get a good jump on it,” Judge said Monday. “The reality is that the arms of the quarterbacks in this league are better than the feet of the guys tracking them down in the deep part of the field, so you’ve got to make sure you get a good jump on it, take the right angles, and have the ball skills to finish.

“I’d say in terms of the overall development, Zay [Xavier] is a very, very intelligent player. Very intelligent. He’s a guy that when you evaluated him coming out of college, you saw him all over the field making plays, blitzing, playing the deep part of the field, matching up in man. He’s got a really, really big skill set. For us, we can use him in a lot of different ways.”

Jabrill Peppers’ Giants tenure coming to an end?

McKinney has played 100% of the defensive snaps in each of the last eight games and is surely stepping up in the absence of Jabrill Peppers, who’s out for the year after sustaining a ruptured ACL and high-ankle sprain against Carolina in Week 7.

McKinney’s role was already superior to that of Peppers when the latter was healthy, but Xavier’s play-making abilities in the secondary have basically solidified that Jabrill’s Giants tenure is concluding.

In a passing league, McKinney isn’t the liability in the passing game that Peppers is. Peppers is productive as a run-stopper and pass-rusher and can perform up near the line of scrimmage but struggles in the pass-defending department.

Peppers’ contract expires at the end of this year while McKinney’s rookie deal runs through the 2023 season. Moving forward, the Giants would be better off saving the cap space and paying less for McKinney, a guy who can actually succeed in the deep part of the field.

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Ryan Honey is a staff writer and host of the Wide Right Podcast.