Xavier McKinney #29 of the Giants intercepts a pass from Jalen...

Xavier McKinney #29 of the Giants intercepts a pass from Jalen Hurts #1 of the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife on Sunday, Nov 28, 2021 in. Credit: Mike Stobe

Julian Love said earlier this season he would dye half of his hair blond to match Xavier McKinney’s black-and-white cookie ‘do if his teammate made the Pro Bowl.

At the time, it seemed like a safe statement to make. He probably should start thinking about making a barber appointment now, though.

McKinney is quickly emerging as not just one of the key pieces in a surging Giants defense but one of the top playmaking safeties in the NFL. No one who plays his position has more than his five interceptions, and no other NFC safety has more than three.

That he has played only 17 games in the pros, essentially a rookie season’s worth, and is producing at such a high level is catching the eyes of many around the league.

The Giants? They knew he had it in him all along.

"Zay is a very, very intelligent player," Joe Judge said of the second-round pick from a year ago. "Very intelligent. He’s a guy that when you evaluated him coming out of college [at Alabama], you saw him all over the field making plays, blitzing, playing the deep part of the field, matching up in man. He’s got a really, really big skill set. For us, we can use him in a lot of different ways."

The way they have been doing it mostly has been as a centerfielder.

"At this point, the most effective thing we can do with him for the betterment of the defense is playing a lot of the deep part of the field," Judge said. "You’ve got to have someone back there who has the range and ability to play the deep part of the field sideline to sideline, but then also someone who has the awareness and instincts to get there and get a good jump on [the ball]. The reality is that the arms of the quarterbacks in this league are better than the feet of the guys tracking them down, so you’ve got to make sure you get a good jump on it, take the right angles and have the ball skills to finish."

That would be McKinney.

"I’m trying to be a game-changer for my team so we’re able to win games," he said after his interception of former college teammate Jalen Hurts helped the Giants beat the Eagles last Sunday. "That’s been my biggest thing, just trusting what I see and going and getting it."

Just his presence has been helpful to the rest of the defense.

"It gives us more confidence as DBs knowing that we’ve got playmakers behind us that are going to go back there and make plays any time a quarterback attempts to throw it deep on us," cornerback James Bradberry said.

Whether any of this will lead to a Pro Bowl nod is too early to tell. Fan voting recently began and the coaches and players won’t vote until closer to the end of the regular season. That gives McKinney more time to keep making the kind of impact plays that tend to get noticed when folks around the league start filling in their ballots.

And time for them to catch up to what the Giants already know about their young safety.

"Zay, he’s a superstar who’s only going to get better," Saquon Barkley said.

It’s easy for him to espouse that sentiment. He doesn’t have half a head of blond hair riding on the outcome. But even Love echoes the idea.

"Xavier is a rising superstar in this league without a doubt," Love said. "I think attention should be shown his way, for sure."

In the event that it is, Love was asked how he thinks he’ll look with McKinney’s two-tone hair.

"Probably better than him, honestly," he said, laughing. "Hopefully he gets it done."

Notes & quotes: S Logan Ryan was activated off COVID/reserve on Tuesday at the expense of another defensive back. Second-year CB Darnay Holmes was placed on injured reserve with a rib injury suffered on his return of an interception last Sunday. His designation leaves the Giants thin at cornerback with starter Adoree’ Jackson suffering a knee injury Sunday that knocked him out of the game (although he remains on the active roster). Ryan, a defensive captain, missed two games after testing positive for COVID-19.

More Giants