On paper, the situation didn’t look too promising at first.
When General Manager Ted Thompson drafted tight end Ryan Taylor in the seventh round, Taylor joined a roster that had four established veterans at the position, plus another rookie tight end in D.J. Williams drafted two rounds earlier.
Taylor decided from the get-go, however, that he couldn’t worry about any of that.
“Obviously, they drafted me for a reason,” Taylor said of how he viewed the seemingly disadvantageous circumstances. “They didn’t just pick a name out of a hat. I know Mr. Thompson and everybody knew what they were doing.”
Coming from someone fighting for a roster spot from day one, that comment reflects a player who’s either very confident in himself or has some kind of ace up his sleeve.
In Taylor’s case, it’s a little of both. His confidence stops far short of arrogance, and that ace is his special-teams prowess.
Taylor talks and plays like he belongs, even if he had to pinch himself when he stepped into the huddle on the first day of training camp, listening to Aaron Rodgers call the play and looking through his facemask at Greg Jennings and Donald Driver.
“It was almost mind-blowing,” Taylor said. “I almost couldn’t listen to the play.”
He hasn’t acted like a wide-eyed rookie since, rarely if ever dropping a pass that comes his way in practice. Ben McAdoo, his tight ends coach, said Taylor is a raw offensive player that needs a lot of refinement in technique and fundamentals, but his college experience as a tight end, linebacker and special teams demon at North Carolina makes him a well-rounded player that knows the game.
“He’s bowling-ball-butcher-knives,” McAdoo said. “He’s got great energy out there, great practice habits, finishes well.”
That boundless energy has come in handy because at different stages of camp the four veteran tight ends – Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree and Spencer Havner – have all missed practices due to injury. That has put a heavy burden on Taylor and Williams, but they’ve held up physically while mentally learning the playbook that much faster.
Taylor’s workload has been even greater on special teams. Working with the first unit on most, if not all, of the “big four” (kickoff coverage and return, punt coverage and return), Taylor has proven to be ahead of the curve on special teams for a rookie at this level, for a couple of reasons.
For one, he captained the special teams units at North Carolina, where position coach Allen Mogridge called him “reckless” in a good way. Many skill-position draft picks haven’t handled special-teams duties before, nor are offensive rookies normally as well-versed in tackling and pursuit angles as Taylor.
Also, former North Carolina head coach Butch Davis, who previously coached the Cleveland Browns, ran pro-style special-teams schemes, not punt formations such the “elephant spread” that are becoming more common now in college.
“These guys that have twists coming off in their face have no clue what to do (in punt protection),” Taylor said. “You can tell the guys that have done it before, how to pick guys up and stuff.”
Special Teams Coordinator Shawn Slocum said Taylor might be the first Packers rookie since Korey Hall in 2007 to work on all the top special-teams units in camp, and he’s doing it without the benefit of offseason mini-camps and OTAs to get an initial taste of the playbook.
“He’s very bright,” Slocum said. “He looks like he’s well-prepared coming out.”
Ultimately, Taylor’s ticket to a roster spot is on special teams, but in order to secure his place he’ll have to prove he can produce on offense, too.
He got off to a good start in that regard in the preseason opener in Cleveland, catching two passes for 30 yards in the fourth quarter – an 18-yarder to pick up a first down, and a 12-yarder that put the ball on the 2.
There’s no telling at this point if he’s figuratively that close to the goal of making the team, but if the circumstances back on draft day didn’t phase him, it’s hard to believe anything will.
“He’s a pretty confident kid, and I like that,” McAdoo said. “One thing we talk about, even with Jermichael, it’s not where you start it’s where you finish.
“I think he enjoys the challenge. He knows it’s going to be an uphill battle, but he doesn’t seem to be backing down at all.”