Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor. (Nick Wass/AP)
The end of November marks the eight-year anniversary of the tragic death of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor on Nov. 27, 2007.
At age 24, Taylor was shot to death in a home invasion. Before his death, Taylor was the Redskins’ ultimate weapon; standing 6 feet, 2 inches and weighing nearly 220 pounds, Taylor’s size and speed set the benchmark for incoming safeties. Taylor could cover ground with his 4.51 40-yard dash time, but his linebacker size allowed him to pummel receivers and unsuspecting running backs across the middle of the field.
Taylor’s emergence during the late 2000s as a blue-chip safety placed him alongside elite secondary defenders including Baltimore’s Ed Reed and Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu. Taylor died so early in his career, but possessed the potential to surpass them as the top safety in the NFL, a title that both Polamalu and Reed often shared during their careers. Some could argue that Taylor was already the NFL’s top safety at the time of his death. Does the AFRO Sports Desk agree? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate this question.
Riley: Reed was best known for his coverage and Polamalu was best known for his toughness and ability to operate as a linebacker around Pittsburgh’s front seven. All things considered, I believe Taylor was a direct combination of the two with more size. He could play the passing lanes as well as Reed and help control the action up front similar to Polamalu. If not for his sudden death, he would have easily surpassed both players for the title of the league’s top safety. Among the great safeties to play in the NFL, from Brian Dawkins to Ronnie Lott, none had Taylor’s measurables or his abilities as a playmaker. Whether it was an interception, a sack or a big hit, Taylor was one of the few players in NFL history that could play across a defensive setup from his safety position. He could shift between free and strong safety and not miss a beat, or help a teammate with his assignment—Taylor was that good. In the eight years since his passing, Washington has tried to fill that role with nearly 10 players and none have panned out. Taylor was special even before he was able to realize his potential.
Green: Taylor was a fantastic player but Reed should go down in history as the best safety of all time. The NFL record holder for most interception return yards, longest interception return and tied with three players with the most postseason interceptions, Reed had a major impact on the Ravens’ success. Reed patrolled the secondary like a hawk for nearly a decade; he was the measuring stick to which all safeties were graded, including Polamalu and Taylor. I do believe that Taylor had a chance to be great but he also played with an aggressive style which he wouldn’t have been able to get away with in today’s NFL. The rules have changed to protect offensive players—you can’t even breathe on receivers nowadays without being penalized. Reed realized that and adjusted his playing style accordingly. I’m not certain Taylor, the rebel, could have done the same.
Riley: We didn’t get a chance to see him make the adjustment because he was taken from us far too soon. Remember, Washington fumbled away the first few years of Taylor’s career trying to figure out where to play him. while the Ravens settled quickly on Reed’s position after his first year. By the time both Taylor and Washington settled in, ST was off to his best season ever, recording five interceptions in nine games during the 2007 season before his life was cut short. Taylor’s early career numbers will never measure up to Reed’s, but Taylor’s presence and dominance on the field at such an early age was just a preview of what could have been. At age 24, Reed was just a rookie in the NFL. Taylor entered the league at only 20 years old so the potential to evolve into something excellent was already there; he just needed some more time.
Green: The age factor does make a unique difference, but age aside, Reed was simply more productive. The numbers are staggering when you consider that, at the conclusion of Reed’s third year, he had already collected 20 interceptions and a whopping 657 interception return yards. He had also already become the first player in NFL history to score touchdowns on an interception, a forced fumble and recovery, and a blocked punt. Riley, you argue that Taylor was too young to amass those type of stats or fill his potential. But how many more interceptions and big plays would Reed have had if he entered the NFL at only 20 years old? Both safeties were great, but when comparing the two, we’re simply talking about unrealized potential compared to record numbers that will probably never be matched or beaten. Ed Reed was the undisputed top safety of his era and has a case for the best player at his position in NFL history.