Takkarist McKinley believed the Browns were a perfect fit for him as soon as he signed his contract in the spring as a free agent.
The ovation he received when he walked back into the defensive line room following a three-week, excused absence during training camp affirmed that notion even further.
"The whole D-Line started clapping for me," said McKinley, who was excused for personal reasons but arrived back Aug. 24 to prepare for the season. "That was a cool moment because it shows it's a brotherhood. I was gone for a while, dealing with stuff, and as soon as I walked in, everyone started clapping. They were excited to have me back, and that made me feel real good."
The Browns have provided McKinley with a warm welcome since the first day he stepped into their building back in March at the start of free agency. They needed a young, talented defensive end, and McKinley, a 2017 first-round pick who spent his first four seasons in Atlanta, checked those boxes.
So far, the Browns have put his talents to good use.
McKinley has recorded 0.5 sacks, eight tackles and two quarterback hits and has played in just under half of all Browns defensive snaps in their first three games. The Browns are optimistic McKinley will continue to make strides and possibly build his best season since 2018, when he recorded seven sacks, 15 quarterback hits and was among the best players on Atlanta's defensive line.
McKinley believes he can get there, too, but the most important aspect he's felt so far has been comfort. He referred to Executive Vice President of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry as "Mr. Berry" and head coach Kevin Stefanski as "Coach 'Ski" and expressed sincere thankfulness to both for giving him a chance to continue his career on a talented defense.
"The Cleveland Browns are a great organization," he said. "The support just means everything, to have the support from the owner, the GM, the head coach and my teammates. It was all just great, so I'm glad to be with the Browns."
McKinley's arrival in Cleveland followed a whirlwind, frustrating journey through four different franchises last season.
In November 2020, he was waived by the Falcons and claimed by the Cincinnati Bengals, then waived by the Bengals, claimed by the 49ers and waived a second time. Each of those moves happened after McKinley failed team physicals due to a groin injury he battled through all of last season. He ultimately signed with the Las Vegas Raiders and spent the rest of the season on Injured Reserve.
The Browns placed a waiver claim on McKinley all three times he hit the market. He said in March the Browns even attempted to trade for him at one point last season, too.
McKinley smiled Thursday when he was reminded of the several attempts the Browns made to bring him to Cleveland. He knew they wanted him, and he was thankful their desire for him was still evident when a path to the team was finally possible.
"I'm just excited to be a Brown," he said. "It played out how it played out. They tried to trade, they tried to claim and I ultimately ended up where I was supposed to be."
The Browns have surrounded McKinley with the tools he needs to be great.
DEs Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney will occupy most of the defense's attention on gameday. That's not to say McKinley's talents don't merit attention, too, but five offensive linemen aren't always enough to contain three aggressive, versatile defensive ends who sometimes are at the line of scrimmage together.
The Browns saw how much of a logistical nightmare that can be for defenses last Sunday — Garrett broke the franchise record with 4.5 sacks against the Bears, Clowney recorded his first two sacks with the Browns and McKinley notched his first sack — albeit a half of one — for the first time since Week 1 of 2020.
McKinley expects more big performances to come from the D-Line later this season, and he hopes he can be even more of a producer to make it happen.
"I think there's always room for improvement," he said. "Whenever I get some opportunities to go out there, I've got to make them count."
Those opportunities figure to keep coming for McKinley, who's been fully embraced by his teammates, coaches and others in the Browns organization who believe he can be a special player in Cleveland.
That's what has driven McKinley the most since he stepped in the doors of the practice facility and felt the warm welcome of his new team. He wants to give them his all, and that's all the Browns can ask.
"This league is not promised," McKinley said, "so just being able to go out there on this practice field and meetings and just get 1 percent better every day and to compete is the best thing ever."