Several standouts from Redskins training camp were expected.
A healthy Jordan Reed looked like one of the premier tight ends in the NFL. Prized offseason signee Landon Collins wowed teammates and fans in Richmond with three interceptions. Defensive linemen Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Matt Ioannidis looked the part of perhaps the team's strongest position group.
Then there was the effort of outside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy, a 2016 undrafted free agent who has played in three NFL games in as many years. Fully recovered from a season-ending torn pectoral in November, McKinzy garnered increased attention during training camp for his versatility off the edge. His success continued over the first two preseason games.
For the first time in his NFL career, McKinzy looks primed to start the season on an active roster.
"Just the mental part of the game, like how fast things change in the click of a second," McKinzy said about what areas he made strides in during training camp. "Just understanding the defense, understanding my health and what my teammates are good at.”
McKinzy spent his first two years as a practice-squad player in Tampa Bay and Los Angeles, respectively, before arriving in Washington, where he bounced between the 90-man roster and free agency. He eventually landed on the Redskins' practice squad before the 2018 season.
Nine weeks into the year, the team called him up to the active roster, and he played three games for Washington. But in the third contest, a Week 12 divisional battle with the Dallas Cowboys, McKinzy suffered a torn pectoral. His chance to prove himself was cut short.
Landing on Injured Reserve was a physical and mental setback for McKinzy, who had never suffered a season-ending injury before. However, it also gave him a renewed sense of focus and determination towards becoming a contributor in the NFL.
“It just gave me time to get better with the game, to become a professional and to be a professional,” McKinzy said of the time off. “It gave me the opportunity to just study the game more and to work on my craft.”
Check out photos of the Washington Redskins during their preseason Week 2 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
McKinzy was a full participant in training camp, and he showed enough for the Redskins to list him as the No. 2 weakside linebacker behind perennial Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan on the team's first unofficial depth chart.
McKinzy also made his presence felt in both preseason games. He recorded two quarterback hits and recovered a fumble at the goal line against Cleveland, then had another quarterback hit and a pass deflection at home versus Cincinnati.
A key component on his comeback, he said, has been the help he’s received from veteran teammates.
“When you’ve got somebody in your room like Ryan Kerrigan, man, it’s pretty easy to do the right thing,” McKinzy said. “I just follow him and follow his lead. He’s a leader and you just follow him. When you’ve got people like that in your room it makes it a lot easier for me.”
Self-motivation has also been crucial to McKinzy's emergence. Despite going undrafted, bouncing around practice squads and enduring an ill-timed injury, he's remained confident in his abilities and optimistic his opportunity would arise. Training camp was that chance, and he responded with speed, power and savviness off the edge.
Now he's aiming to pass rush his way onto the Redskins' 53-man roster.
"I feel like what really helps me a lot is just the work ethic and grit that I have," McKinzy said. "Being an underdog. I just have to keep going."