Taylor might be draft's best player
Former Miami safety Sean Taylor might be the best player in the draft, but he won't go No. 1.
INDIANAPOLIS -- An argument can be made that the best player in April's draft won't go first.
Sean Taylor of Miami is the ultimate playmaker. He makes crunching tackles in the mold of Roy Williams of the Dallas Cowboys and he snares interceptions with the ease of Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens.
There's only one problem. Taylor is a safety, playing 10 to 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage. If defensive linemen are the first line of defense, safeties are the last line. They play so far off the ball that many teams devalue them. Thirty-year-old veterans making more than $3 million are usually run off. Last year, some teams were taking rookie cornerbacks and plugging them into the safety position as starters just for speed.
"Traditionally, you can get safeties that can play pretty good for you -- even go to the Pro Bowl -- in the later rounds," Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "So if there's a choice, you can move the safety off a little bit farther. The other thing is when you scout, safeties a lot of times are off the tape and may have five plays in a whole game."
But here's the debate floating around the Indianapolis combine: What if that safety could be the next Ronnie Lott, a Hall-of-Fame player? Can a safety go No. 1? Probably not in a draft that features quarterbacks Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, athletic left tackle Robert Gallery and top receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald, Roy and Reggie Williams and maybe even Mike Williams of USC.
But Taylor could be the next Ronnie Lott.
"I don't know, Ronnie Lott did a lot of great things," Taylor said. "That's a big name. I don't know. Wow."
But, Taylor is the one making a lot of NFL people say wow. He measured out at 6-2, 230 pounds for the scouts. But he's got enough range and speed to make plays against the pass and turn interceptions into big plays.
"Sean Taylor is a playmaker," Cardinals coach Dennis Green said. "There are guys that are playmakers at their position. Anquan Boldin is a playmaker at his position. Larry Fitzgerald is a playmaker at his position. Sean Taylor is a playmaker at safety. He can get up and down the field, and he'll make interceptions at a key time. He's a good hitter. Roy Williams is tremendous in the NFL and he is that kind of player. You're talking about that kind of player except he is faster. He is faster and he will probably make more plays with the ball.
"Roy makes a lot of plays in a lot of different areas and he is a heavier hitter, but I think Sean is a ballhawk. He's a guy who can have eight, nine, ten interceptions in his first year in the league. He has that kind of ability."
Taylor terrorized the college scene. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden was awed by his skills. "He hits as hard as he covers," Bowden said. He enters the NFL with as much buzz as Lott, Ken Easley and Dennis Smith did in the early 1980s. But as great as those three were, none went higher that No. 4 in the draft. Easley went fourth in the 1981 draft, Lott went eight and Smith went 15th to Denver.
It's likely that Taylor won't go as high as former Lion Bennie Blades, who was the third pick in the 1988 draft.
"That's not my choice," Taylor said. "I think I'll leave it up to everybody else, everybody who has the say-so in the picking. I'm a player. I could care less, really. Of course. I think I'm the best player, yes."
As much as they need a young running back and some help at cornerback, the Lions would love to take Taylor with the sixth pick. The Redskins are looking offense at No. 5 and may pass on him. But if Taylor is that good, how can he fall so far? It's because he's a safety.
"That's something that's been going on for a long time," Taylor said. "I have no say-so. The only thing I can do is do what I can to better my draft status and keep working hard."
It's funny. Taylor could have played at more cherished positions. He was a 1,300-yard rusher at Gulliver Prep and holds the Florida touchdown record of 44 touchdowns as a senior. But Taylor came to Miami wanting to be switched to defense and play safety.
"I think it's more of a challenge," Taylor said. "Everybody can play offense and get 25 or 30 carries, you're bound to break one. It's hard to play defensive back and be consistent and get interceptions and make tackles. You have 10 other guys, including yourself, trying to get to the ball and make plays. It's more of a challenge. A lot of the pressure is put on defense more than offense. It's a challenge all-around. I'm a competitor, really."
It's that running back ability that sets Taylor apart from many of the other safeties that have come before him. When he gets the ball, he can turn plays into defensive touchdowns. Had he stayed at running back, Taylor believes he might have been a Top 10 pick in an NFL draft.
"I think I'd be pretty high like I am now," Taylor said. "But I'm not. I'm a defensive player."
Jet coach Herman Edwards was an NFL defensive back and he's played with and coached some of the best.
"He's very, very athletic, big, strong, fast," Edwards said. "I've studied him a little bit and watched him play. He makes plays on the football, and he's a pretty good tackler. He's a big guy, a junior coming out, but he's got all the tools. He's going to be a very, very good free safety. If he works at it he can be one of the better safeties because he has the God-given talent. Coaches can't coach talent."
And Taylor shows he's quite coachable. He studies a lot of tape, making his great instincts that much better.
"Instinct is a reason a lot of guys do what they do," Taylor said. "Instincts play a big part in the way I play. A lot of times my instincts lead me right to the ball. A lot of times it's the read I get from the quarterback. It helps me a lot. I might have to slow my progressions down when I come to the NFL just to get the hang of it. But I think it's going to be a big part."
The only thing slow in Taylor's NFL career will be waiting on draft day to see if he slips out of the Top 5. He might be the best player in the draft, but his position of safety dictates that could happen.
One thing is for sure, though. It won't be safe to enter whatever secondary he ends up leading.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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