RENTON, WA - Thanks to a setback-laden, longer-than-expected recovery from leg surgery, Darrell Taylor wasn't able to play a single snap during his rookie season with the Seahawks, spending the entire regular season on the Non-Football Injury list.
But with the 2020 second-round pick out of Tennessee back healthy and able to hit the ground running in his return this spring, Taylor impressed Pete Carroll and Seattle's coaching staff throughout the team's offseason program. Starting with rookie minicamp in May, he has been double-dipping working with linebackers as well as defensive ends, positioning himself to be a major contributor in 2021.
"Darrell was a real highlight to this time," Carroll said following Thursday's final minicamp workout. "He worked out with the rookies the whole time, which was great for him. He is probably, of the guys coming back, the best prepared guy on the football team right now, because of all of the time he spent. He invested in it, he came with a great attitude and work ethic and all of that."
While Carroll and general manager John Schneider haven't ruled out the possibility of re-signing K.J. Wright, the presence of Taylor as well as 2020 first-round pick Jordyn Brooks makes it seem unlikely the 10-year veteran will be back. After investing high draft choices in them, the organization understandably wants both players to see significant playing time moving forward.
The writing seemed to be on the wall for Wright at weakside linebacker, the position he excelled at during his first nine seasons. When Bruce Irvin suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Week 2, the Seahawks decided it was time to elevate Brooks into the lineup alongside Bobby Wagner when they were in 4-3 base looks. Though he wasn't necessarily keen on making the switch, Wright moved to the strongside spot to replace Irvin and stayed in with Wagner in nickel and dime situations when the team only had two linebackers on the field.
While he missed a few weeks with a knee injury, Brooks came on strong in the second half, including amassing a career-high 11 tackles in a Week 13 loss to the Giants. After wrapping up his rookie season with 57 tackles and playing well in his playoff debut in January, the former Texas Tech star looks ready to take on an expanded role as an every-down linebacker next to Wagner.
Though Wright played outstanding football after shifting to the SAM linebacker spot, starting with the decision to move Irvin there prior to his second season in 2013, the Seahawks have always preferred having a player at the position who offers pass rushing chops. Carroll has reiterated that desire numerous times over the past month while discussing Taylor's potential fit.
For all of the strengths in his game, that's not an area where Wright has been much of a factor in his career, as he has 13.5 sacks and 27 quarterback hits on his resume in 144 career games.
Taylor, on the other hand, led the SEC in sacks during his final two seasons with the Volunteers and has ample experience pinning his ears back rushing off the edge. He was one of college football's premier pass rushers, winning with speed and power. He also played extensive snaps as a linebacker at the college level and even in the glorified walkthroughs that are NFL OTAs and minicamp practices, his fluid athleticism can be seen dropping back into coverage and he looks natural doing so.
"He's an exciting football player," Carroll remarked. "His edge rush ability, his athleticism, he's got a really good burst off the football, the ability to play in space, as well as rush the passer. You can maybe see why we were frustrated last year that we didn't have him, but now we've really seen him. We hadn't really seen him with much to go on, and really he had one of the brightest camps."
Like the rest of Seattle's incoming rookies, Taylor will have to prove he deserves to start when the team reports for training camp in late July. If he struggles when the team transitions into padded practices or battles injuries again and Wright has yet to sign with anyone by that point, the team may need to re-consider a reunion. Carroll also spoke highly of third-year linebacker Cody Barton and he could potentially work his way into the mix after starting four games at the position as a rookie.
But based on what the Seahawks have seen from Taylor over the past month, all signs continue to point towards the team unleashing him as the new starter at SAM linebacker while also having him rush from the LEO defensive end spot in passing situations, taking on a hybrid role similar to the one Irvin thrived in. His explosiveness and versatility should provide the team with another capable pass rusher to harass opposing quarterbacks and additional play-calling flexibility for coordinator Ken Norton Jr.