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Great pre-draft article on Sean Taylor

Zen-like Todd

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Sean Taylor knew what he was risking. His coach, Miami defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, was there constantly, never letting him forget that he was putting his greatest asset in jeopardy.

As Taylor and teammates D.J. Williams and Maurice Sikes gradually built themselves up, Shannon reminded them of the potential cost: Too much bulk would rob them of speed--teal the extra half-step that was the difference in making plays or missing them.

"We used to call each other 'The Fat Boys,'" Taylor says, laughing.

It's easy for Taylor to laugh now. The extra muscle he added--with no discernible drop in the speed that made him one of college football's most noticeable playmakers--has helped make him a hot commodity.

Let's put it this way: Teams looking for defensive help in the draft had better not hesitate when considering a couple of "The Fat Boys." This draft's first-round menu is loaded with talented Miami defenders, and the house favorite is Taylor, a safety who embodies the NFL's new model for the position: big, fast and able to handle just about any assignment.

The other likely first-rounders are speedy linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Williams and massive run-stuffing tackle Vince Wilfork, all of whom have the ability to to make significant contributions right away.

At 6-3, 225, Taylor is a super-sized safety who hits like a linehacker. And with estimated 4.45 speed in the 40, he runs like a corner, something that makes him able to handle coverage assignments usually reserved for smaller men. His stunning combination of speed, size and skills should make him a top 10 pick. The War Room says he has a "chance to be a great one quickly" and predicts he will be taken by the Lions with the sixth overall pick.

"There's only been one other guy since I've been doing this who has been close to him, and that's (Cowboys safety) Roy Williams," says Packers director of college scouting John Dorsey, who has been with the Packers for 13 years in a scouting role.

Taylor doesn't have Roy Williams' blitzing ability, but he can provide the same heavy metal run defense and is superior to Williams in coverage. In fact, Taylor can blanket slot receivers one-on-one. Because of that coverage proficiency, he will be able to help his team keep substitutions to a minimum, preventing offenses from exploiting mismatches in nickel and dime packages. Taylor also will provide a big dose of playmaking ability; he intercepted 10 passes last year and thrives on getting to the ball first.

"If you have a safety who can do all that, you can put him where you want him," Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan says. "Then you can say to an offense, 'You're not going to dictate to me.'"

Nolan knows about the value of a versatile safety. He has Pro Bowler Ed Reed, another Miami product who is adept at stopping the run and covering the pass. As a freshman in 2001, Taylor played behind Reed.

The Ravens didn't have a player of Reed's ability three years ago, when they won the Super Bowl behind one of the best defenses in league history. "People would go four wide receivers on us, and as good as our defense was, we couldn't match up with all those receivers because of our safeties," says Nolan, who joined the team following the Super Bowl win.

Reed changed that for the Ravens, and Taylor will do the same for his team, He has all the essentials to be a four-down force.

First down. NFL teams love to move a safety toward the line on running downs and outnumber the blockers. Taylor is perfect for working inside the box. "He can really support the run," says Eric DeCosta, Baltimore's director of college scouting. "He will stick his nose in there and lead with his facemask. He's an intimidating tackler."

Why shouldn't Taylor be aggressive? He's bigger than some NFL linebackers and likely won't wear down from the extra work. That's a regular concern with Baltimore's Reed, who is 5-11, 205. "If (Reed) takes a lot of hits for three weeks, we'll back him off a little that next game," Nolan says.

Even though Miami didn't use Taylor much in run support--"You want your best player to be your last line of defense," Shannon says--he finished with 77 total tackles, seven behind the line.

Second down, Here's where the battle of wits begins. Some offenses will go with four wideouts on this down, no matter how many yards they need for a first down. So, Taylor can walk out and get the slot man while still handling his responsibility against the run. "He has explosive ability," DeCosta says. "He is physical and has outstanding range. He can make plays that a lot of other guys can't."

Anybody who saw Taylor against Florida State last season can vouch for that. He made eight tackles, including a sack, and intercepted two passes, returning one 50 yards for a touchdown. "With his physical talents, you should just let him line up and play," Dorsey says.

Third down. Taylor played cornerback in high school, and last season Miami often used him on the edge in goal-line situations. One NFC scouting director believes Taylor could do it again at the professional level. "He has the athletic skills to be a big corner in the right scheme," the scout says. "He is better at coverage than (Roy) Williams."

Though it's unlikely any team will let Taylor hang out on the corner full time, the idea of him using his big body and strength to jam receivers is appealing. He also could be used outside to match up against jumbo wideouts. Considering the top of the draft is loaded with big, athletic wideouts such as Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams and Reggie Williams, the matchup game is about to become more challenging for defenses.

No matter the receiver, Taylor has the strength and speed to stay with him inside or out. "He's one of the fastest big guys I've ever seen," Shannon says. But Taylor is more than just a blanket. He closes quickly, catches the ball well and can run like a back once he gets the ball. In 2003, he returned three interceptions for touchdowns.

Fourth down. Top 10 draft picks aren't supposed to be special teams studs, but Taylor is. He was a gunner on punt coverage for the Hurricanes and played on the punt-block unit. He returned kicks and punts on occasion last year and doesn't mind running down kickoff returners, either.

"I told a scout, 'You may not want to use Sean on special teams, but he'll go out there if you ask him,'" Shannon says. "He just wants to make plays, and special teams are an opportunity to do that."

Why stop there? Put Taylor on offense, too. Or let him kick. Or coach. The guy can do it all.

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