CLEVELAND, Ohio — Former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn was encouraged when he laid eyes on Takk McKinley at training camp last summer.
“It was the best he had looked,’’ Quinn told cleveland.com in a phone interview. “He was as fit as he’s ever been, and really strong. He was rock-solid.’’
McKinley, whom the Falcons traded up from No. 31 to No. 26 to draft in 2017 out of the UCLA, attacked last offseason with a vengeance after the club declined to pick up his fifth-year option. The snub lit a fire under him, and he trained harder than ever and dropped about 30 pounds to a lean and mean 238.
What’s more, he was coming off his third shoulder surgery since a month before he was drafted, and was on a mission to come back strong.
The hard work paid off in a 38-25 loss to the Seahawks in the opener, when McKinley blasted off the edge to sack Russell Wilson on the first play of the game. By the time the first half was over, he had five of his game-high six quarterback hits, and Wilson was a believer.
“He looked super-fast and explosive and I thought that first game was just kind of a preview of what the season was going to be like,’’ Quinn said. “The sky was the limit for him, 100%.’’
But McKinley, 25, tore a groin muscle in Week 2 against the Cowboys, and his season was effectively over. He was inactive the next two games, and played in only two more games for a total of 28 snaps, including five in a loss to the Panthers that dropped Falcons to 0-5. Quinn and GM Thom Dimitroff were fired after that loss, which didn’t help matters for McKinley.
Quinn was always in his corner, and Dimitroff had drafted him. With both gone, McKinley’s situation in Atlanta deteriorated, and he took to Twitter to criticize the club for declining trade offers over the previous two years, including one from the Browns before the trade deadline last fall.
The Falcons fined him and then waived him in November, and the Browns put in a claim for him then and after he failed physicals with the Bengals and 49ers. He landed with the Raiders on Nov. 23, but was placed on injured reserve and never came off. The Raiders planned to re-sign him, but opted for Yannick Ngakoue instead, signing him to a two-year deal worth $26 million.
Takk McKinley: ‘If I want to be in this league, I have to start acting like it’
Browns GM Andrew Berry signed McKinley to a one-year deal worth $4.25 million, and banked on the fact that he’d revert to the player he scouted in 2017 when he was Vice President of Player Personnel for the Browns, the one who notched six sacks for the Falcons as a rookie and seven in his second season.
“I’ve got good thoughts that he’s going do well there,’’ Quinn said. “He’s just super motivated to go get it. So I think the team’s getting him in a great place.’’
Quinn, hired by the Cowboys in January as their defensive coordinator, talked to two of his good friends on the Browns’ staff, defensive coordinator Joe Woods and linebackers coach Jason Tarver, and provided a glowing report on McKinley after he signed with the Browns.
“I just wanted them to know he’s a great dude and I also told that to Takk about them,’’ Quinn said. “I care about those guys a lot and they’re going to do a great job. I’m glad he’s there with some good guys.’’
Quinn had a special place in his heart for McKinley since he got to know him well during the pre-draft process. With plenty of inside intel from then-UCLA coach Jim Mora Jr., his good friend and former fellow 49ers and Seahawks assistant, Quinn knew all about McKinley being abandoned by his mother when he was five, not knowing his father, and being raised by grandmother Myrtle Collins, who died in 2011. He knew that Collins met ends meet by collecting water bottles and cans, and that McKinley was sometimes homeless growing up.
He knew that McKinley was determined to live up to the promise he made to his grandmother to make it at a Division I school and in the NFL. He also knew it wouldn’t always be easy for him on his own in the world. He admired the tape as much as did the person.
“I loved the speed and the length,’’ Quinn said. “He’s got really long arms, he’s super fast. I loved that he was just relentless in the way that he went about it. I thought ‘okay here’s somebody that you think can develop and go do it.’’’
Unfortunately for McKinley, he’s had to overcome three shoulder surgeries since 2017: one a month before the draft, one after his rookie year and one after the 2019 season in which he was limited to 3.5 sacks in his first stint as a full-time starter.
“To put that kind of rehab in three different times, he really showed a lot of commitment,’’ Quinn said. “So I’d say the guy’s a super hard worker in that space too.’’
Once McKinley criticized the team publicly and was fined for it, it seemed there was no going back, and Quinn is confident the change of scenery will do McKinley good.
“I’ve seen that before,’’ Quinn said. “The team was thinking it was going to be a big year for him last year and when it didn’t happen because of the injury, it’s hard on everybody. But he was really hitting his stride and headed for a hell of a season, and I really think wherever he was going to go for 2021, the team was going to get the best of him.’’
Browns sign Takk McKinley to a one-year deal worth $4.25 million.
He believes folks in Atlanta inaccurately labeled McKinley a bust.
“When it didn’t kind of go according to plan, people wonder why,’’ Quinn said. “It’s human nature. But in his case, the injuries were a real factor in that.’’
Quinn, a finalist for the Browns’ head coaching job in 2014 when it went to Mike Pettine, has a good feel for the team and the city, and believes Cleveland will love McKinley.
“He’s a type of player where you can see his energy,’’ Quinn said. “He wears his emotions on his sleeve, so to speak. He’s fiercely competitive, so that part will come across to the team and to the fans just in terms of the style that he plays.
“I think they’ll be surprised how fast he is. The team will be like ‘he can really run.’ He’s going to bring it. He’s going to be somebody fans can relate to because of how hard he’s going.’’
It correlates with what Berry said about McKinley last week.
“We view Takk as a young edge player with a very high motor,’’ Berry said. “He’s got speed, he has power and he has quickness. He really plays with his hair on fire. He had a really strong start to his career, and I know the past couple years he’s dealt with a few injuries, but we think his playing style and skillset marries really nicely with what we look for out of our defensive ends in this system.’’
McKinley said last week that he’ll be lifelong friends with Quinn, who always told him like it was, and the feeling is mutual. In fact, Quinn was pleased to see McKinley show up for his introductory Browns Zoom conference in a suit and tie.
“He’s relied on the effort and the speed that he has,’’ Quinn said. “But to put the whole package together it takes a lot, and he realized that last offseason and during the ’20 season. So I think for about the last 15 months, he’s really [matured], and for him, being a dad helped with that too. So there a lot of good things that happened in his life that helped bring that about.’’
Quinn believes McKinley will benefit greatly from playing opposite the oft-doubled Myles Garrett in Woods’ attack-minded front. The Browns also hosted Jadeveon Clowney on a free agent visit last week and could sign him too.
“When there’s one that gets more attention, which Myles certainly deserves, for sure it will help Takk,’’ Quinn said. “I would almost be surprised if he wasn’t in the six-, seven-, eight-sack [range].’’
Quinn hopes that McKinley can finally “capture the production and the career that he wants because he’s battled through the injuries, he’s ready to get going, his legs are good so it’s time to play the style and the way that he knows he can. He’s got a to prove, and lot of people when put in those spots really deliver and I think he’ll be one who does that, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.’’
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