Editor's note: This is the first story in a 10-part series counting down the top 10 Atlanta Falcons players our writers believe are most likely to have a breakout season in 2020. The definition of breakout, for the purpose of this list, is a player who shows sudden significant improvement.
Could this finally be the year that Takk McKinley finally puts it all together and has that big breakout season we've been anticipating? Put it this way, it couldn't come at a better (and more opportunistic) time for the 24-year-old McKinley or the Falcons.
McKinley, who was the 26th overall pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, is entering his fourth year with the Falcons and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2020 season after Atlanta opted to not pick up his fifth-year option. The Falcons, in a statement, said they "are taking a wait-and-see approach."
In other words, it's go time for Takk McKinley.
TOP 10 BREAKOUT SEASON COUNTDOWN
July 13: No. 10 Takk McKinley July 14: No. 9 July 15: No. 8 July 16: No. 7 July 17: No. 6 July 20: No. 5 July 21: No. 4 July 22: No. 3 July 23: No. 2 July 24: No. 1 Body of work
Following each of McKinley's first two seasons in the league, there were definite signs of a breakout seasons in the works for the 6-foot-2, 265-pound edge rusher out of UCLA.
McKinley came on strong in the second half of his rookie campaign, finishing with six sacks in the five of the Falcons' final seven games. Even more impressive was the fact that he tallied two sacks in the Falcons' two playoff games, one against the Rams and one vs. the Eagles.
When injuries gutted the middle of the Falcons defense in 2018 - linebacker Deion Jones (foot) and safeties Keanu Neal (knee) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) - even more pressure was put on the pass rush. While the team took a step backward, McKinley started the season hot (collecting four-and-a-half sacks in the first four games), overcame a mid-season lull and eventually finished with seven sacks - one more than his rookie year total. It's worth noting that McKinley also improved in combined tackles and quarterback hits in those first two seasons, too.
Things took a step in the wrong direction, production-wise, for McKinley in 2019. McKinley missed two games, started 13, but saw his sack totals decline to just three-and-a-half sacks and hits on quarterbacks dropped from 15 to 13.
Poised for a breakout
Not only is McKinley playing on the final year of his current four-year deal with the Falcons, he's playing for his next contract and long-term financial security. Whether McKinley resumes his career in Atlanta or another city in 2021, he must build upon all of the positives he put on display during his first two seasons and, at the same time, prove 2019 was a fluke and not the start of a downward trend.
The good news for McKinley is that the Falcons have made a series of offseason moves that they hope will improve an anemic pass rush that tallied just 28 sacks in 2019, the second-fewest in the NFL.
Most notably, Atlanta added edge rusher Dante Fowler during free agency and traded for former first-round pick Charles Harris while the club parted ways with pass rushers Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn. The Falcons also drafted defensive tackle Marlon Davidson in the second round of April's draft and will have defensive end Steven Means back in the mix after he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury early last year.
Those moves should help free up McKinley to make more of the impactful plays the Falcons envisioned when they drafted him in the first round. Falcons coach coach Dan Quinn alluded to as much when he said that he expects McKinley to play a "significant" role in 2020. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff echoed those sentiments earlier this offseason.
"I would love to see Takk McKinley, you know, take it to another level," Dimitroff said of McKinley, who enters 2020 with 16.5 career sacks. "He has so much ability and upside for us."
The table is set for the Falcons' fiery pass rusher to finally have that long-anticipated breakout season. All McKinley has to do now is feast on quarterbacks - and he kicks off this list because we think he has a chance to do just that in 2020.