EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley was asked about his team's strong defensive performance after Sunday's 13-7 win against the Philadelphia Eagles. He mentioned the names of young cornerbacks Darnay Holmes and Aaron Robinson, and their contributions to the short-handed secondary.
Then he threw in a comment about safety Xavier McKinney that forced a double-take because he attached an unexpected superlative to his name.
"[McKinney is] a superstar who is only going to get better throughout this league," Barkley said mid-sentence.
A superstar, huh? Barkley said it, and so did McKinney's safety partner, veteran Logan Ryan, a few weeks back.
That means something when two of the team's captains are willing to put that much praise and pressure on a second-year player. It is also quite the leap for a player who a month into this season had yet to really differentiate himself in the NFL.
McKinney, a second-round pick out of Alabama in 2020, spent most of last season on injured reserve with a foot injury. He showed flashes of dominance in four starts down the stretch, providing promise for this year. But the first month or so of this season he was the guy who was close to making plays but never quite finished the job.
Then in a Week 5 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, McKinney had two interceptions. He had two more in a Week 9 win against the Las Vegas Raiders. He added a fifth interception Sunday, showing range on a pick of quarterback Jalen Hurts and also a key pass breakup on the Eagles' final drive. McKinney also tied a career high with eight tackles against the Eagles and is now Pro Football Focus' 12th-ranked safety with an overall grade of 76.7. His highest mark of 78.3 is for his coverage.
"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 said. "... We want to play aggressive so quarterbacks can throw it back there to try to test it."
Maybe what Barkley, Ryan and Bradberry have been seeing at practice every day is finally making its way to the field.
The results in recent weeks are encouraging, with McKinney handling a bigger role with Ryan sidelined the past two games because of a positive COVID-19 test. Ryan is expected to return Sunday on the road against the Miami Dolphins (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
"One thing we've really found with [McKinney] is this guy can do a lot of things close to the line of scrimmage. He can cover man, he can play underneath as a robber, he does all those things very well," coach Joe Judge said. "The one thing he really does exceptionally well is playing the deep part of the field. ... He understands what he's seen earlier in that game as well as on tape to kind of go ahead and calculate the formation along with the personnel and how they're using it. ... He's made a lot of plays by sitting back there, letting the play develop and then he, obviously, has the skill set physically to make those breaks and finish with those catches."
It was apparent again in the third quarter against the Eagles, when McKinney was the lone deep safety in the middle of the field. He was standing on the left hash when he saw where Hurts was looking, flipped his hips and took off effortlessly.
McKinney tracked the ball 24 yards in the air and finished near the Giants sideline. He leaped, high-pointed the ball, and made the interception seem somewhat routine.
Several weeks ago, this seemed like the kind of play McKinney might have barely gotten to and, at best, knocked down the pass. Even he has noticed a difference.
"Just being aggressive on the ball ... trying to be a game-changer for my team so we're able to win games," McKinney said. "So that's been my biggest thing, just trusting what I see and going and getting it. ... Obviously I've still got a lot of things I've got to practice and work on, which I do every day."
It's not an accident that the Giants under Judge and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham have built their defense from back to front. They drafted McKinney and signed Ryan, Bradberry and cornerback Adoree' Jackson since their arrival. Major moves.
This is the philosophical approach of coaches from the tree of New England coach Bill Belichick.
"When you look at the structure of the defense, it's no secret Miami (under Belichick disciple Brian Flores), New England as well, and us, we play a lot of sub [-package] defense. So a lot of nickel, dime and things of that nature, and that's a heavy matchup defense in a lot of ways," Judge said. "To be able to be truly fluid through game plans, you have to have a variety of skill sets and body types to go out there and have depth to be able to play it, and really that starts in the secondary.
"You can use the secondary to supplement different parts of your team, as well. If you're light on linebackers, how are you using some of your bigger safeties? If your pass rush is an issue, how are you using your secondary to either slow down the release of the quarterback or also be part of the pressure?
"That just kind of ties into the philosophy and the construction of the team as a whole. Good safeties, good corners -- in this league, can't have too many of them."
McKinney's proving to be one, and a key piece to the Giants' defense.