FLOWERY BRANCH — Of all the things that potentially could go wrong with an NFL draft pick, the Falcons can at least be certain about this regarding Takkarist McKinley: Passion and emotion won’t be a problem.
One more joy-fueled expletive, and the kid was going to spontaneously combust on stage Thursday night.
McKinley, who led UCLA with 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss this season, despite a significant shoulder injury, had the most emotion-fueled entrance of all the first-round draft picks Thursday night. After he was picked by the Falcons, he walked across a makeshift stage outside of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, clutching a large picture of his late grandmother, Myrtle Collins. She raised him in the Oakland area until dying of heart complications in 2011.
McKinley then became a draft-night, social-media sensation as he launched into an emotional recap of his difficult upbringing, what his grandmother meant to him, how they used to watch pro “rasslin'” together and the accomplishment of being drafted. He sprinkled in a few choice expletives.
“I probably went on stage and said a few curse words — I probably got fined already before I got my contract,” McKinley joked later of his on-stage interview with Hall of Famer Deion Sanders of the NFL Network, a former Falcon. “I have to be able to control that emotion.”
But the Falcons would rather have it that way than having to pull something out of him. Otherwise, you’re left with ghosts of drafts past: Aundray Bruce, Jamaal Anderson, name your slug.
The Falcons wanted McKinley. He was among “four or five” players they targeted in the first round. But when a string of defensive players starting flying off the board — Florida linebacker Jarred Davis at 20, Missouri defensive end Charles Harris at 21, Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers at 24 — they knew they couldn’t sit and wait and hope somebody fell to them at 31.
So general manager Thomas Dimitroff sacrificed third- and seventh-round picks in a trade so they could swap picks with Seattle at 26th, moving up five spots to take McKinley. There was a belief, certainly by McKinley, that he was going to be taken by “the team with the star” — the Dallas Cowboys — at 27th if the Falcons didn’t take him.
Dimitroff said later he started thinking trade around pick No. 20. He didn’t hesitate to give up a third-round pick, even though that leaves the Falcons with only three more picks in the next two days of the draft (round Nos. 2, 4, 5).
“We were targeting pass rushers,” Dimitroff said. “We had four or five guys throughout we were going to target, and we got some intel it was going to be nip and tuck. A number of good defensive players were going. We went in thinking we were going to be in the mid-20s.”
McKinley has an amazing life story. But Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn, who have sought a pass rusher to compliment Vic Beasley, were mostly taken by his on-field performance, toughness, speed and passion.
He played for nearly two seasons with significant shoulder injuries at UCLA — a torn labrum and a fractured socket, both of which weren’t diagnosed until after the 2016 season, even though the injuries came in 2015. He had surgery in early March. He said at the time that doctors expected the rehabilitation to be four to six months.
So, yes, health could be an issue. Six months would be right about the time of the season opener.
But the Falcons are confident he’ll be ready in time for the season, and they’re convinced he’ll develop into a standout. Otherwise they wouldn’t have given up so many assets. Because they’ve been right so often in the past two drafts, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.
“We’re excited to add another guy who has the run-and-hit factor in full effect,” Quinn said.
McKinley has overcome worst things than an injury. He was homeless and lived in poverty. He grew up without his father and was abandoned by his mother. It’s a story he will share in full again when he arrives in Atlanta, but he hit on the high and low points after the draft.
“This means every (expletive) thing to me! Excuse my language. Fine me later, man. Fine me later. This means everything to me!” he said on stage.
And later, speaking of his grandmother and his upbringing: “I probably wouldn’t be here without her. Just to come this far. Born in Oakland. Raised in Richmond, California. A lot of people don’t make it this far. A lot of people got talent. But they don’t get the opportunity I have. So I did this for my grandma. I did this for my family. I did this for my city. … Before she passed away I told her I was going to get out of Richmond, I was going to get out of Oakland, I was going to go (to a Division I school) and I was going to make it to the NFL. About 30 seconds later she closed her eyes and passed way. That promise meant everything to me. I could’ve easily given up. I could’ve easily gone the street route – the gangs, the guns, the drugs. I stuck with it. I did it for her.”
Later on a video conference call with Atlanta media members, McKinley retold some of story, then was asked about what he knew about the Falcons.
“I do know they had the Patriots 28-3, and they ran out of gas,” he said. Yeah, We remember.
McKinley will need to get bigger. The Falcons list him at 6-4, 230 pounds. He was listed at 250 pounds at the recent scouting combine. But from Quinn: “He has the traits we’re looking for. And he’s a finisher.”
Regarding his new player’s emotional television interview, Quinn smiled and said, “We’ll appreciate that kind of enthusiasm. As we were first looking at it, we were pumped that he was a part of our team. I love that kind of passion. The energy he brings to a team and a locker room. As for as dealing with the media, well … maybe we need a cool-down period at the draft.”
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