When Takk McKinley returned for the start of training camp at the end of July, Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn noticed one thing right away. McKinley lost 22 pounds and looked like he spent the offseason working out to put himself in the best position to succeed in what is a make-or-break year for him.
After declining to pick up his fifth-year option, the Falcons said they are taking a "wait and see approach" in determining if the former No. 26 overall pick has a future in Atlanta. And as the Falcons get ready for their upcoming matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, a team that was reportedly interested in drafting McKinley in 2017, Sunday could be the chance the 24-year-old shows both teams what he can be.
The Falcons traded up five spots to acquire McKinley. Atlanta gave the Seattle Seahawks its 31st overall pick, along with their third and seventh round picks that year. In doing so, the Falcons were able to jump in front of the Cowboys who picked defensive end Taco Charlton two picks later.
"The work that he put in in the offseason on the track, on the field, when he was back in California rehabbing his shoulder, but also really changing his body," Quinn said. "It came into play when we saw him here at training camp. We said, 'OK, this is a faster, more explosive version of him.' Those are the traits that set him apart."
McKinley has yet to put together the dominating season the Falcons envisioned he could. He's shown flashes of promise at times but has struggled with consistency. In three seasons, McKinley has recorded 71 tackles, 16.5 sacks and 38 quarterback hits.
In Sunday's home loss to the Seahawks, McKinley looked like a different player. His speed was on display as was his relentless effort to get to Russell Wilson. McKinley had six quarterback hits, five tackles and one sack in Atlanta's 38-25 loss.
He's coming off back-to-back seasons with injuries that cut his time on the field short. In 2018, McKinley played in eight games and in 2019 he saw action in 13 games. After receiving the news that his team wasn't picking up his fifth-year option, McKinley said it was a "wake-up call" that fueled his mindset over the last sixth months.
"It was more motivation," McKinley said. "It made me hungry. Not saying I wasn't hungry in the past. Just got to go prove it.''
He's doing just that and has impressed defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Quinn and teammates. The Falcons are counting on McKinley to consistently affect quarterbacks this season. In Week 1 it was Wilson, this week it's Dak Prescott.
McKinley and Dante Fowler Jr., both former first-round picks, are two players Morris will rely on each week as the Falcons hope to be a better pass rushing unit in the 2020 season. The Falcons' defense looked much better in this area against the Seahawks. Morris' unit sacked Wilson three times and forced 10 quarterback hits.
"Takk went home and got himself in the best shape he can get into," Morris said. "He was able to come back here with a renewed spirit, some motivation and a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. To watch those two guys on the field together is pretty exciting. They bring speed, juice and energy. And I think those guys are starting to form a connection."
After recording just 3.5 sacks in the 2019 season, there's no time to waste for McKinley. He needs to be more productive this season and will have every opportunity to do so. McKinley's career-high number of sacks as a Falcon is seven. If he and Fowler can both record double-digit sacks this year, the Falcons' defense will be in much better shape.
As will McKinley in terms of his long-term future in the NFL.
"At the end of the day, I know what I can do," McKinley. "For me, the biggest thing is just finishing. I left a lot of sacks out there last year. This year, not trying to do the same thing.''
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks with top photos from the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Week 1.