Whenever the players retreated to the locker room prior to kickoff, McKinley pulled out his cell phone and stared at a photo of his late grandmother, Myrtle Collins, who died in 2011 following heart complications. Football fans across the nation became familiar with the unbreakable bond McKinley had with his grandmother during the first night of the NFL draft. While toting a framed picture of Collins, he had an emotional outburst when he vowed to fulfill a promise to her to get out of the rugged Oakland area and make an impact in the NFL.
The picture on his phone isn't the same portrait, yet it carries just as much significance.
"When it was time to go out on the field for the last time after the coaches speak, I'd look at the picture, get emotional," McKinley said. "It was just a picture of her sitting on the couch. It was just memories."
McKinley sometimes flipped to another picture in the same sequence that showed him smiling with his arm wrapped around Collins as she sat in a recliner. Both images drove him to play that much harder.
"She's why I'm here, and what I play the game for," McKinley said. "I say something while looking at those pictures, but at the same time, I'm going to keep that between me and her."
Collins would be proud of her grandson's rookie showing. McKinley provided a glimpse of his tremendous upside with six sacks, one shy of the Falcons' rookie record set by Mike Pitts in 1983. McKinley, the 26th overall pick, had one less sack than first-overall pick Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns, who played 119 more defensive snaps.
McKinley's statistics also included 10 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 20 combined tackles, and seven tackles for loss in 381 snaps.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn knew what type of talent McKinley had just from evaluating the former UCLA Bruin during the pre-draft process. He watched McKinley mature as a player with each passing game.
"We loved the speed; we loved the toughness," Quinn said. "So for him not to have an offseason, all of a sudden come in and make an impact like he did and keep growing as it went, I think the guy has got a really big future. I love his toughness. That's the style and identity. He's another member of that group that has some of that run-and-hit factor that we really covet. There are a number of guys that have that, and we're certainly glad to have him as part of that."
McKinley immediately brought more personality to the locker room, with his turquoise dreads and tendency to speak his mind on social media. On the field, he wasn't afraid to mix it up with teammates, either. He got into a little shoving match with left tackle Jake Matthews during training camp and then had a more intense scuffle with offensive tackle Ty Sambrailo during an October practice.
"The physicality that he plays with, you don't see that all the time with rookies," veteran defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn said of McKinley. "Sometimes, they're kind of timid, but he's definitely physical. That's going to help him when he continues to learn the other stuff that comes with being a pro."
The Falcons envision a potent rush tandem of Vic Beasley Jr. coming off the left edge and McKinley off the right for years to come. When Beasley missed some time this past season because of a hamstring injury, it gave McKinley a chance to work from both sides, a challenge he embraced while refining his rush technique. He quickly learned how just trying to beat an opponent with a bull rush wasn't going to cut it in the NFL, so he worked on counter moves while adjusting to a three-point stance rather than two-point.
Asked to recall which play from his rookie season was the most memorable, McKinley said his first NFL sack at Detroit in Week 3. After he beat left tackle Greg Robinson around the edge and pulled Matthew Stafford to the ground, he pointed to the sky in honor of his grandmother, knowing he had fulfilled the promise to get to the quarterback.
"That is a moment I'll always remember," McKinley said. "Hopefully, I can get plenty more."
If McKinley needs any added incentive, all he has to do is glance at his phone.