- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the span of 12 months, Phil Taylor has gone from washing strangers' feet to defending his own.
It has been a life-changing year for the 6-foot-3, 335-pound nose tackle, a likely first-round pick in the NFL draft -- perhaps to the New York Jets. Once regarded as an overweight underachiever, Taylor reinvented himself after returning home last May from an African mission.
In the impoverished villages of Nairobi, Kenya, the former Baylor star befriended children and toured dilapidated houses made of scrap metal. Taylor helped the locals by cleaning the feet of those infested with jiggers, flea-like insects that -- in extreme cases -- can cause body parts to rot.
"It was eye-opening," Taylor told ESPNNewYork.com, recalling the trip he made with other Baylor athletes. "It had a big impact on me because it seemed like after I came back from Kenya, I was a new person. It humbled me a lot."
He became a smaller person, that's for sure. After ballooning to 380 pounds, Taylor dropped nearly 50 pounds, enjoyed a strong senior year and impressed pro teams at the Senior Bowl. He worked his way from a projected third-round pick into the first-round conversation, fueling speculation he could go as high as 21st overall to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Jets, picking 30th, need an athletic wide-body in the middle of their 3-4 defense. They hosted Taylor on a recent visit to their Florham Park, N.J., facility, and they "showed a lot of interest," he said. "They need a nose guard like me because [Kris] Jenkins isn't there anymore."
With as many as 15 teams planning to employ a 3-4 system, Taylor's value should be soaring, but a recent Internet report about a chronic problem in both feet tempered some of the positive buzz. He was annoyed by the report, insisting "my feet are fine" and that he's never had any problems.
"It's bad information, and I don't like it because it's messing me up," he said. "It's not true."
'Tis the season for misinformation and smoke screens, but the truth usually surfaces on draft day, when teams reveal their hands.
In terms of pure talent, there's a lot to like about Taylor (no pun intended), starting with his immense power and surprising athleticism. He isn't going to terrorize a lot of quarterbacks -- only 2½ sacks the last two seasons -- but he can wreck a rushing attack. He made 52 tackles last season, the most by a Baylor interior lineman in eight years.
"Like most nose tackles, he's got some baggage, but you learn to live with the baggage," one general manager said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "When he wants to play, he can dominate. He'd be a good candidate for the Jets. There's nothing not to like from a trait standpoint."
Baggage? Taylor got into trouble at his first school, Penn State, where he and two others beat a man at a fraternity function in October 2007. He was arrested and charged with felony aggravated assault. The charge was ultimately dismissed, but he was suspended from the team in February 2008 and decided to transfer, sitting out the 2008 season, per NCAA rules.
He called it "a learning experience," adding, "I made the best of a second chance."
The Jets, of all teams, are willing to take players with off-the-field issues. From all indications, Taylor has stayed out of trouble since the Penn State fight. A personnel executive from one team, with knowledge of the incident, said, "If you look at it closely, I think you'll be OK with it."
Taylor still has detractors, some of whom point to his weight issues and an inconsistent motor. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay gave him an early second-round grade, but said of the big fella, "Is he going to stay in shape or is he going to eat himself out of the league when he gets a paycheck? You get nervous about that the closer and closer you get to the draft."
The Jets probably would insist on weight clauses in Taylor's contract, an incentive they've used in the past with other players. As for the intensity questions, he played an inordinate number of snaps for a nose tackle, according to the personnel executive -- which could explain why Taylor seemed to be coasting at times. He probably was out of gas.
Now let's get back to his feet. As much as Taylor downplayed it, there is something there.
Joey Clinkscales, the Jets' vice president of college scouting, said Taylor "does have some feet issues." He didn't go into detail, but he said the team doesn't believe there are any long-term concerns. Clinkscales suggested that Taylor developed the problem from carrying too much weight, alluding to the 380-pound days.
An executive from another team said its doctors don't consider it an acute problem, but noted that Taylor wears orthotic supports, according to their information.
The Jets are intrigued by Taylor because, at his best, he could be the long-term replacement for Jenkins, whom they released in March. In 2001, Jenkins was dogged by similar questions when he came out of Maryland, and he slipped into the second round, 44th overall. The Carolina Panthers got a bargain.
Taylor believes he can make the same impact, and he traces his turnaround to last May, the trip to Kenya.
"We're fortunate over here," he said. "It showed me how blessed we are. You can't take anything for granted."
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