Atlanta Falcons rookie defensive end Takk McKinley hits a pad held by assistant defensive coach and former Buford High coach Jess Simpson during the first day of practice Thursday in Flowery Branch.
Transitioning from college football to the NFL is a process often filled with stumbling blocks.
The size and complexity of professional playbooks usually put rookies on a steep learning curve, with mistakes sometimes serving as the best teaching tool. Then comes the physical component of the game, where NFL size and speed often catch young players off guard.
But for Takk McKinley, a rookie with major setbacks in both aspects, the adjustment doesn’t have to be such a hassle.
“At the end of the day, it’s still football,” McKinley said. “I feel like some guys just overcomplicate things. You line up on the grass and play football. It’s really simple. I understand I’m a rookie; I’m going to make mistakes, and I’ll do good things.”
Even after missing key instructional time during OTAs and minicamp, and being physically limited following offseason shoulder surgery, McKinley looked every bit like a first-round draft pick when the Atlanta Falcons opened training camp Thursday in Flowery Branch.
The UCLA pass rusher was crisp and explosive during drills, showing no hesitation while forcefully striking pads with both hands. But Falcons coach Dan Quinn said McKinley will still be limited to individual drills, non-full-speed group drills and night walkthroughs with the hope of allowing him into the team portion of practice at some point this week.
Yet Quinn was encouraged by McKinley’s first showing after the team traded up to pick him 26th overall in April’s draft.
“He looked real normal and didn’t look like he guarded (his shoulder) at any spot,” the coach said. “Any player that comes back from an injury says, ‘It’s OK, I’ve got to go through this and make sure I feel good again.’ The fact that he has confidence (is) because he put the work in during the rehab portion.”
Unfortunately for McKinley, the majority of his rehab from surgery in early March was spent away from the team’s practice facility in Flowery Branch.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound defensive end said he flew to Atlanta on June 15, the final day of mandatory minicamp.
Though hampered by his shoulder, McKinley was barred from participating anyway due to UCLA being on the quarters system and still having classes in session.
McKinley made up for lost time by training with rehab specialists and coaches for the past six weeks.
“I’ve been working hard,” the rookie said. “Monday through Friday in the weightroom, outside doing drills and doing everything I could do to get back on the field and help this team win.”
McKinley said he didn’t spend any time working out with teammates between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp, but they came away impressed with their first taste of his abilities.
“He looks good,” cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “They’re still easing him in or whatever. But I’m excited. I love pass rushers; they make things easier for me.”
Atlanta aims for McKinley to make things easier for the entire defense, specifically as an edge rusher opposite linebacker Vic Beasley, last year’s NFL sack leader with 15 1/2.
If his time at UCLA is any indication, he’s more than capable of filling that role. McKinley earned first team All-Pac-12 recognition as a senior, finishing with 18 tackles for loss (tied for 21st overall in the country) and 10 sacks (tied for 19th).
All this while playing through a torn labrum and a fracture in his shoulder socket, injuries McKinley said feel “fine” after surgery and extensive rehab.
“I played with the shoulder for two years, but you’ve got to take it slow,” he said. “You don’t want any setbacks … The doctor last week got with the coaches and told me we’re going to take it slow, just slowly progress me.”
The Falcons are encouraged by that progress, especially because McKinley told reporters before the NFL Combine in March that his recovery time would be four-to-six months.
If anything, Atlanta’s newest pass rusher is ahead of the curve. The team expects McKinley to be available for its third or fourth preseason game, which will give fans eager to move on from last year’s Super Bowl meltdown a look at what should be a fearsome front seven.
So it’s not surprising that McKinley was all business at training camp, a far cry from the guy who instantly became a fan favorite with his draft-night antics.
After being selected by the Falcons, McKinley held up a large framed picture of his grandmother and gave an emotional — and at times profanity-laced — speech about how he promised her on her deathbed that he’d reach the NFL.
Now that he’s here, truly here, McKinley is trying to temper his expectations and make his transition from college to the pros as smooth as possible.
“It felt great to be out there with the team and get back to football,” McKinley said. “My last game was November of last year. It’s good to be back to football.”
No wonder the rookie is trying to keep things simple.