But now, he’s recovered from March shoulder surgery and ready to show that the Falcons didn’t make a draft mistake.
He has practiced well, flashing his speed and power. Against the Steelers he played 10 snaps and had a quarterback hit. It was a more than a respectable showing.
“It felt great,” McKinley said. “(I) put so much work in the offseason to get my shoulder right. All the trainers and everybody (who) helped me get to this point, just to get healthy, just to be out on the field and getting some reps, was the greatest feeling in the world.”
McKinley hasn’t had his welcome-to-the-NFL moment yet.
“I was nervous, but after the second drive you just realize that it’s still football at the end of the day,” McKinley said. “I’ve been doing this my entire life. Just go out and play football.”
Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel is not one to shower too much praise on a rookie.
“Pretty good start,” Manuel said. “Pretty good start. ... It was a good start for a guy that’s coming along and that’s been battling back.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn spends instruction periods with the defensive ends and tutors McKinley in practice.
Quinn liked what he saw, too.
“Just draft-day passion, we don’t see that every day (from McKinley),” Quinn said. “But what we do see is toughness. That part shines through really clearly.
“We were encouraged by his first game and what he can do. We feel the speed that he plays with. He’s got a really good get off, meaning he can beat a guy to the punch off the snap.”
Quinn plans to give McKinley more action when the Falcons face the Cardinals on Saturday.
The Falcons hope that McKinley can provide a pass-rush opposite of Vic Beasley on third downs. Beasley led the league last season with 15.5 sacks.
If McKinley can provide a push from the opposite side, Beasley might not see as many double-teams.
The Falcons registered their 34 sacks over 655 pass attempts last season. They had a sack per 19.2 pass attempt. The Falcons had 19 sacks over 561 pass attempts in 2015, one per 29.5 pass attempts.
The 34 sacks were the most by a Falcons team since the 37 in 2007.
If Beasley and McKinley and get to the quarterback, the defense will be vastly improved. The Falcons have not had two double-digit sackers since Rod Coleman (11.5) and Patrick Kerney (13) in the 2004 season.
But McKinley knows he still has plenty of work ahead of him.
“To me, just keep getting better as a pass rusher and as a player overall,” McKinley said. “I still can work on my hands, my get off.”
Defensive line coach Bryant Young had some inspiring words for McKinley.
“He thought I did pretty good,” McKinley said. “There were some plays where … my angle of departure could have been better, and that’s the split second where I could have got a sack. … The whole coaching staff was excited for me to get out there and prove what I could do.”
McKinley cherishes his one-on-one sessions with Quinn.
“The techniques that he teaches me and how to rush as a passer are a lot of things I didn’t know,” McKinley said. “Just him having that education as a pass rusher is helping me out a lot.”
McKinley’s logs those lessons and plans to implement them in games.
“The biggest thing for me in the angle of departure,” McKinley said. “At UCLA, I would probably rush straight instead of rushing at an angle. Some times when you rush straight you’ve just got to curve it off.
“When you are rushing at an angle you are attacking the offensive linemen and that forces him to turn his hips and be vertical.”
Veterans Beasley, Adrian Clayborn and Jack Crawford have been helpful, too.
“The biggest thing has been ‘don’t over-think,’” McKinley said. “When I first got here, I was in the UCLA mindset where we kind of read and then react. Here, it’s more attack.
“Those guys keep preaching to me ‘just use your speed and keep going. Your power and keep going.’ It took a while for me to understand what they were talking about, but they preach that to me every day. Attack, attack, attack.”