After selecting an offensive lineman, defensive tackle, defensive end and quarterback in the first four rounds of the NFL draft in April, the New York Giants spent their fifth-round choice on Cooper Taylor, a University of Richmond (FCS) product whose position with the Giants is, well, undetermined.
At the collegiate level, Taylor played safety exclusively. Before transferring to Richmond, Taylor was a standout in Georgia Tech’s defensive backfield. As a true freshman in 2008, Taylor appeared in all 13 games, recording the second-most tackles on the team (69).
The following season, Taylor was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW), a rare condition that affects the heart’s conduction system. Although Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News reports that the corrective procedure only took an hour and Taylor walked out of the hospital the same day, the precautionary recovery time forced Taylor to redshirt in 2009.
“I thought football was taken away from me,” Taylor told Vacchiano. “I really thought if I had a heart condition my career would be done.”
Taylor’s second chance didn’t come while at Georgia Tech. After playing just four games with the Yellow Jackets in 2010, Taylor transferred to Richmond, where he became an immediate starter at safety. In his second season as a Richmond Spider, Taylor was an FCS All-American, despite playing his senior year with two broken hands.
In the months leading up to the draft, Taylor’s professional future was murky. He did not take part in the NFL Scouting Combine in February, but the 40-yard dash time he recorded at his pro day (4.49 seconds) was faster than all but three of the safeties timed at the combine. Still, it was difficult to gauge teams’ interest for the 6’4” safety who weighs in at nearly 230 pounds.
The Giants saw enough potential in Taylor to select him in the fifth round, at No. 152 overall. The team’s plans for Taylor, however, remain undisclosed. Many NFL scouts believe his best fit at the professional level may be at outside linebacker.
“Cooper [Taylor] has the physical numbers to maybe be a linebacker, to play near the line of scrimmage, to rush the passer,” Richmond head coach Danny Rocco told Tom Rock of Long Island Newsday. “But he also has the range and speed and ball skills to play in the back end.”
The Giants have a shaky group of linebackers, and since Antonio Pierce’s retirement, the unit has taken a lot of heat as the weak point of New York’s defense. Long gone are the days of the Big Blue Wrecking Crew, which featured a terrorizing cast of linebackers, spearheaded by a different Taylor—a Hall of Famer named Lawrence.
Cooper Taylor may not claim NFL Defensive Player of the Year as a rookie, like Lawrence did in 1981, but he could provide the linebacker unit with an X-factor that it has been missing for quite some time.
Taylor doesn’t model his game, however, after the New York legend with which he shares a surname. Instead, Taylor idolizes a different Giant: Jason Sehorn, a player who broke the mold for a modern cornerback from 1994 to 2003. Taylor went so far to call Sehorn “one of the best DBs to play the game,” according to Paul Schwartz of the New York Post.
Sehorn, who was moved to safety against his will as a rookie, encourages Taylor to make an impact at his natural position and resist a transition to linebacker, according to Schwartz.
“Size is the box they place you in in the beginning, and it’s up to you to convince them it’s inappropriate or wrong,” Sehorn told Schwartz. “Leave him at safety. Let him break the mold.”
At linebacker, the openings are there for the taking. Of the nine linebackers the Giants are taking to camp, four are either current or former undrafted free agents. Jacquian Williams (sixth round, 2011) is the only linebacker on the roster that the Giants actually drafted (Mathias Kiwanuka was originally drafted as a defensive end).
If Taylor passes up the wide-open competition at linebacker, he’ll have a much tougher time cracking the lineup at safety. Veteran Antrel Rolle is entrenched in the Giants defensive backfield, and young safeties Stevie Brown and Will Hill are favorites to line up beside him. Terrell Thomas’ potential transition to safety could really crowd the competition.
Taylor’s combination of size and speed, however, is almost as rare as the heart condition that nearly stole his football career. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell often runs a three-safety set, and Taylor’s frame is perfect for the third safety. The position requires exceptional ability both in coverage and in the box, like a hybrid linebacker/safety.
Rocco, Taylor’s college coach at Richmond, insists his product possesses those abilities. How will the Giants decide to utilize them?