RENTON, WA - Seahawks general manager John Schneider is notorious for trading down in the draft, so it always comes as a surprise when he occasionally opts to buck trend and move up instead. It requires a special player to justify doing that, and Seattle has often been right when it has.
Such a move has landed the Seahawks players like Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf in the past. Naturally, when they dealt a third-round selection to jump from pick No. 59 to No. 48 in the 2020 NFL Draft to select Tennessee defensive end Darrell Taylor, it was going to turn some heads.
Unfortunately for them, Taylor's selection did not yield positive results in 2020. Suffering a leg injury in college, the former Volunteer failed to make his way back and play a single snap in his rookie season following a setback in his rehab.
"It was pretty hard last year not being on the field," Taylor told reporters Friday afternoon. "I had my teammates helping me out. Older guys whispering in my ear every now and then, coaches talking to me. So I stayed the course last year, just trying to be humble, trying to stay positive about what was going on."
Because he didn't accrue a season in 2020, Taylor is eligible to participate in Seattle's three-day rookie minicamp this weekend. Today marked his first time back on the field since January, when he was designated to return from the non-football injury list. Hoping to make his debut as part of a potential Super Bowl run, the 24-year old ran out of time after the Seahawks were shockingly eliminated by the Rams in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
"I honestly didn't want to get off the field [Friday afternoon], but we had to go lift and do all that stuff. I just wanted to soak it in because I hadn't been out here in a long time and it just felt really, really, really good to be out there - sun, helmet, everything - it just felt good."
Taylor is heading into a far different situation than the one he entered as a rookie this time last year. Signing edge pieces Kerry Hyder Jr. and Aldon Smith - who's future remains unclear with allegations of second-degree battery looming - in addition to the re-signings of Carlos Dunlap and Benson Mayowa, the Seahawks have put a ton of focus into their pass rushing unit this offseason.
By circumstance, Taylor finds himself pushed down the depth chart at LEO—his most natural position. With lost time to make up for, he's preparing to do whatever he can to earn more playing time, including filling in at Seattle's wide-open strongside (SAM) linebacker spot. Confident as ever, the talented defender is taking to his new role in stride.
"I like the transition. I'm still gonna be playing LEO as well; trying to be a versatile player," Taylor explained.
SAM linebacker has been a major topic of discussion for the Seahawks over the past few months. K.J. Wright took on the position's duties after Bruce Irvin went down with a torn ACL in Week 2 last season, but the veteran remains a free agent deep into the offseason despite putting up one of the most impressive campaigns of his 10-year career.
While Seattle hasn't shut the door on a reunion with Wright, it's weighing its other options such as Taylor and third-year man Cody Barton. Taylor may be the frontrunner for snaps at SAM in order to get him on the field more consistently, but he'll be required to step out of his comfort zone a bit.
As a SAM, Taylor will be relied on to handle pass coverage duties on occasion, though there's reason to anticipate he'll find success in doing so. While it wasn't something he did much of in college, he fared well in his limited opportunities covering tight ends and running backs.
Where he could potentially raise the ceiling of the position from Wright, however, is with his pass rushing ability. Getting to the quarterback simply wasn't a significant part of Wright's game, so Taylor's experience rushing off the edge as a LEO could help add a dimension the Seahawks have rarely had on the strong side of the defense.
Head coach Pete Carroll believes the 6-foot-4 defender will have no issues picking up his new responsibilities.
"We liked him as a rusher first, which we still do, but he's got all the athleticism, he's a real natural athlete, real light on his feet, burst and explosion, change of direction is really good," Carroll said. "So this is not going to be a challenge for him to learn the position. We need to see how he feels when we do mix him dropping and rushing and knowing we want to see him as an outside rusher as well in passing situations. We're double-teaching him and he's such a good looking athlete, he looks like he can do whatever you need him to do."
Carroll admits Taylor has "some catching up to do" in order to get ready for the 2021 season, but he's optimistic the effects of the former second-round selection's leg injury is in the rearview mirror. Taylor is taking a more cautious approach when addressing his health, however, saying it's something that will always be a part of him.
"I don't think the leg will ever be behind me," Taylor noted. "It's gonna be a part of me because I had surgery on my leg, but I'm definitely looking forward to a fresh start for sure."
Already having a titanium rod inserted in the leg in early January of 2020, Taylor says a stem-cell injection he took in November helped him finally see light at the end of the tunnel in his rehab. Now healthy enough to fully participate in football activities, he's ready to move past the injury and focus on what's ahead.
Saying he's "leaned up a little bit," Taylor entered Friday's practice at 245 pounds—a far cry from the 267 he measured in at the 2020 NFL Combine. However, he believes he'll get to 260 by the start of the season.
As he competed in drills all over the practice field Friday, Taylor was seen sporting a new number: 52. Switching from No. 58, which he associates with his injury and lost rookie season, it's yet another step towards a fresh start for the Virginia-born Seahawk.
"My mom wore 25 when she was in high school," Taylor elaborated. "She was really good at basketball, supposed to be All-American and all that stuff, but was scared to get on a plane. So, you know, I wear 52 to represent her. ... I changed my number because I didn't want to wear 58 anymore, because I didn't want it to be a representation of last year, so I thought 52 would be the perfect number to go with."
If it wasn't obvious already, the healing process for Taylor isn't just physical, but mental as well. Unsure of when he'd be able to get back on a football field, after seeing his professional debut pushed further and further away, Friday was a moment of reflection and relief for him. Now, he's ready to finally contribute at the highest level, and with an added chip on his shoulder.
"It's going to fuel me. I feel like my injury from last year is going to fuel me, not being able to be on the field last year is going to fuel me."