McKinney Stands Tall at Inside Linebacker

It wasn't too long ago that Benardrick McKinney was just some 200-pound, unrecruited spread-offense quarterback. After three stellar seasons at Mississippi State, he figures to be the first inside linebacker selected. (Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY)

Benardrick McKinney maybe isn't head and shoulders better than everybody else in this year’s class of inside linebackers. But he's about a head taller.

At 6-foot-4, the Mississippi State standout is a giant compared to Miami’s Denzel Perryman (5-foot-11), UCLA’s Eric Kendricks (6-0), who are considered the best of the rest. NFL Combine Coverage
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“Being tough, my length, being big, knowing the game and knowing my assignments and keys. Just knowing the game of football,” McKinney said when asked about his strengths during his Scouting Combine media session on Friday.

It wasn’t that long ago that not even McKinney could have imagined holding court on Podium C at Lucas Oil Stadium as a likely first-round pick.

In 2010, McKinney was a 6-foot-3, 200-and-nothing-pound quarterback at Rosa Fort High School in Tunica, Miss. He operated a spread offense but garnered practically zero recruiting interest from Division I programs.

“I was just an athlete in high school,” McKinney said. “I could throw the ball, I could run the ball but college is a whole different thing. In high school, I just threw it to whoever was open or just run.”

He dreamed of the NFL. He didn’t believe it would become his reality.

“To be honest, I didn’t,” McKinney said. “I had a dream when I was growing up that I wanted to play for the NFL but being 6-3, 200 pounds playing quarterback and barely playing linebacker, I didn’t know I’d be standing right here talking as a linebacker.”

Propelled by his high school coaches, who toughened him up by having him tackle some of the team’s smaller offensive linemen, McKinney flourished as a two-way player. Mississippi State noticed the undersized, all-state linebacker and decided to offer him a scholarship.

And the rest? Well, as they say, that’s history.

After redshirting in 2011, he finished second nationally among all freshmen with 102 tackles in 2012 to garner first-team Freshman All-American honors from several outlets. He led the Bulldogs in tackles in 2013 and 2014, as well. An early entrant into this year’s draft, the 246-pound McKinney’s imposing size makes him a prime first-round target for any team needing an inside linebacker.

McKinney “shows explosive acceleration coming off the snap and above-average hand-eye coordination,” reads a snippet of the NFL’s official scouting report, provided to by longtime head NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas. “He has the ability to pursue plays along the sidelines, showing balance and quickness to make plays on the move. He has above-average change-of-direction agility and flashes the lateral speed needed to make plays from the backside. It is very hard for a quarterback to get McKinney to bite on misdirection or play-action fakes. He has a keen sense for the ball, especially on plays in front of him, especially playing vs. the run. He is alert dropping back in zone coverage. He shows awareness sifting through trash and his anticipation skills will generally see him get to the ball quicker than most.”

With offenses changing, so is the middle linebacker position – particularly for those rare players who are good enough to play all three downs at a high level. It’s part old-school thumper to take away the power running game and part new-school athlete to cover cat-quick backs and big, athletic tight ends.

“First of all, you have to be tough,” McKinney said. “You’ve got to be a vocal leader because you have to set the fronts, get everybody lined up. You’ve got to be smart, you’ve got to know the game, you’ve got to know your opponent, you’ve got to figure out formations, figure out what the offense is going to do to you.”

McKinney says he can be that player. He’s not that player today. He acknowledges he’s got work to do in pass coverage but thinks he can learn those nuances through coaching. And at 6-foot-4 with 33-inch arms, if nothing else, he’s got the range to limit a quarterback’s passing window.

That’s why McKinney believes he’s the No. 1 inside linebacker in this draft. And why he badly wants to be the first to hear his name called.

“It’s very, very important,” he said. “I have high expectations for myself. It’s been a dream since I was young to be the best at what I do, to be the best linebacker in the country.”


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