- Associated Press - Saturday, August 22, 2020

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) - Takk McKinley has all the motivation he needs heading into the season.

The fourth-year defensive end is still smarting from the Atlanta Falcons’ decision to decline his fifth-year option. He wants to prove the team made a mistake.

“They made their decision, and it’s lit a fire under me, and that’s cool,” McKinley said Saturday. “It’s got me in the best shape of my life. It’s got me doing things to make my game better and hopefully it will all work out for me this season.“

McKinley finished last year with 3 1/2 sacks, the lowest production of his career. He missed the final two games after suffering his third shoulder injury in four years.

It was a considerable disappointment for McKinley, a former UCLA standout and the 26th overall pick of the 2017 draft, but he decided to work out Monday through Saturday during the offseason in his native California, shedding 20 pounds to get down to his college playing weight of 248, changing his diet and getting stronger in his core.

“It’s good to see Takk in a space where a lot of things are aligning correctly for him.,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “Sometimes it just takes that, whether it’s adverse situation or something to go, but you can really see his game coming into alignment right now.”

After finishing tied for second-worst in sacks last season with 28, the Falcons signed elite pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. in free agency, let Vic Beasley Jr. leave for Tennessee and hired Tosh Lupoi as a defensive ends coach to pair with interior line coach Jess Simpson.

It’s likely the Falcons, who are coming off a second straight 7-9 season, declined McKinley’s option after picking up Beasley’s fifth-year option and getting little in return last year. McKinley had a combined 13 sacks and 25 quarterback hits in his first two seasons, but his drop-off last year clearly made the Falcons uncomfortable with re-upping on a big jump in salary.

Prior to the team’s announcement that McKinley’s option was being declined, Quinn met privately with the player to give him the news.

“It was a wake-up call,” McKinley said. “It was more motivation. It made me hungry. I’m not saying I wasn’t hungry in the past. I’ve just got to go prove it.”

McKinley says he is surprised how quickly his first three seasons went. He doesn’t want his career to end any time soon, so getting in shape should help. McKinley’s best overall season came as a rookie when he had six sacks, 10 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and seven tackles for a loss.

“I feel like yesterday I just got drafted,” McKinley said. “Sometimes being a pro you feel like you got time, but once I realized they declined my fifth-year option, it’s like, ‘Man, if I want to be in this league, I’ve got to do something better.’ So I’m trying to focus on all the things I didn’t do (after) the past surgeries. (Last time) I had a shoulder injury, I wasn’t doing bike.

“This year, I had shoulder surgery and I’m doing bike, I’m eating better. It’s just one of them things. One day I’m going to stop playing football. Who knows when that’s going to be? I’d hate for it to be one to two years from now.”

NOTES: RB Todd Gurley and C Alex Mack were held out of Saturday’s padded practice for the second time in three days. Quinn said both are a case of load management. … Rookie DT Marlon Davidson, a second-round draft pick from Auburn, was held out with a knee strain.


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