Taylor Mays, staring you doubters in the face.

In Defense of Taylor Mays

One of the hottest discussions we’ve had recently came courtesy of Paddy’s first-round mock a day or two ago, which started with the Rams selecting NT Ndamukong Suh first overall, and proceeded to have the Chiefs draft safety Taylor Mays fifth overall — the unmitigated gall of it all! Needless to say, this ignited dissention.

Well, here’s a message to those of you who disagree: first, I advise you to check out the mock so you can see the remaining players on the board. Second, do yourself a favor and strap in: I actually completely agree with Paddy’s selection in that spot, and am about to blow your minds with the soupy goodness of sound logic, or incoherent rambling, whichever works best.

To start, I am going to risk alienating large parts of AA’s readership by admitting that I grew up playing soccer. And despite the soft rivalry that’s developed between fans of both sports, soccer and football share a lot of common characteristics.  The most prominent characteristic they both share is the most basic principle of both sports: the best team depends not on which team has the best individual playmakers, but which team can best function as a singular system guided towards a common goal. 

In soccer, of course, that means that all players can crudely be divided into two camps.  There are “piano players” — the guys with all the fancy footwork and powerhouse shots, the guys with punishing slide tackles and center halfbacks, the guys who make the highlights on ESPN Deportes and sleep with Victoria Beckham – and then there are “piano lifters,” the thankless taskmasters who find a way to deliver a brilliant cross, or who guide the opponent into their teammates, or are assigned to essentially follow around the other team’s stud, and sleep with slightly less attractive women.

Players on a football field can be divided up into similarly crude categories, and depending on the team, it’s not always the same positions. In the Tampa 2, your corners are Piano Lifters, designed to play zone and cover the shallow routes to the wings. In more aggressive schemes, more pressure is put on corners to make plays, and that’s where you need Piano Players. Your Lifters work their ass off in little-noticed roles that are usually only appreciated by their coaching staffs and the team’s diehards, and your Players own the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Offenses need the brilliant playmaking of a deep threat at receiver, but they also need a reliable slot or a tight end with soft hands. Defenses need the sack artist coming off the edge, but they also need the defensive tackle swallowing up blockers and getting push up the middle. And so on, and so on.

Piano Players and Piano Lifters make up the great ying and yang of team sports, teams cannot win without people that are very good in both camps. And make no mistake: even though the job is less sexy, a Piano Lifter who can do his job on an elite level is just as good as a Piano Player who can do his job well. In many cases, it is even better.

And that brings us to Southern Cal’s Taylor Mays, and why he just might be worth the 5th pick overall. Details after the jump.

Taylor Mays has the body of Roy Williams, the freakish athleticism of Adrian Wilson, and the speed of Andre Johnson.  There is, perhaps, no precedent for the size/speed combination that Mays brings to the NFL. He covers vast areas of land on the field, so much so in college that he is the only player needed to cover deep. He lands hits that would make Bernard Pollard blush. He can shed blocks and get upfield in run support.

In short, he is the ultimate Piano Lifter.

We have suffered the entire 2009 season, let us not forget its sad, sad lessons. First amongst those lessons is that under this defense, we cannot afford safeties with no true speed or athleticism. Without safeties who can cover the field, our corners were directed to play soft all season, our linebackers had no margin for error in coverage, and we had to get pressure on the quarterback almost instantly.  This predicament allowed virtually any quarterback to rack up ridiculous yards through the air. Without safeties who can effectively play run support, our DL couldn’t shoot the gaps as aggressively because they had no margin for error as well.  Safety is such a crucial position because if they’re unable to perform, it cripples the entire defense. It is a crucial Piano Lifter position that is intended to enable the Piano Players to… well, you’ve seen Shine.

Taylor Mays is more than that guy who can cover tons of ground, he is a player who can cover virtually more ground than almost every single safety in the NFL, and once he gets experience under his belt and knows the best angles and can better anticipate plays, there may not be another player who can touch him. This does more than allows his teammates to do their jobs, it allows virtually everybody, including the other safety, to be more aggressive everywhere.

Everybody talks about how an effective nose tackle can open up the game for the players around him.  People mention how 3-4 defensive ends are supposed to allow the linebackers to become playmakers.  Well as important as those players are, they are literally the first line of defense — the safety is your security blanket, and the bigger the blanket is (and under Mays, it has the potential to be huge), the more plays everybody else can make. Mays’ numbers have never been that incredible in college, but he’s still held in such high regard because of this unique capacity he brings to the table.

Rare is the opportunity when a Piano Lifter comes along that can do so much that he simply enables your defense to put less Piano Lifters on the field and more Players. Selecting Mays does more than improve your safety position, it improves both corner positions. And the inside linebackers. And the defensive line. And the pass-rushers. In the words of Bob Gretz it is a tide that can lift all boats. That’s the very definition of an impact player, and you can count on one hand the number of players that boast that kind of potential in this Draft, Players or Lifters.

As special as he is, he will need technique training, as all safeties do. And he’ll need to get burnt a few times to get the lessons down pat. But even then, the improvement on this defense should be immediate, and as he develops, he sports the ability to earn back that first round pick in spades.

When you’re selecting fifth overall, you do not draft for need. You do not draft to plug any specific holes. Your first round pick should always be the pick that you believe will help the team the most. Period. And if that happens to be a Lifter-type player who can elevate the play of an entire unit of your team, you have a responsibility to make that pick.

I’m not saying it’s Mays. But it sure could be.

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