COVID-19 restrictions meant the Seahawks had just 31 players available for the first day of their annual rookie minicamp Friday, which meant the team was on the field at the VMAC for only about an hour.
But that proved enough time for coach Pete Carroll to marvel at the likes of second-round draftee, receiver D’Wayne Eskridge (“He looks very quick, very strong,’’ Carroll said), and 6-foot-8 sixth-round pick, offensive tackle Stone Forsythe (“a monster of a man”).
The most intriguing player in attendance, though, wasn’t a rookie.
Friday offered Carroll one of his best glimpses at 2020 second-rounder Darrell Taylor, who did not play last season while recovering from surgery to repair a shin injury suffered in 2019 while at Tennessee, which is why he was eligible for the camp.
“This is hugely important for him,’’ Carroll said of Taylor getting some needed reps. The Seahawks saw Taylor for just one week of practice last year before the wild-card playoff game against the Rams.
The thought then was Taylor’s role would primarily be as a defensive end, specifically in the rush-end position the Seahawks call LEO.
But Friday, Taylor was playing mostly the strongside linebacker position, a move that could determine if the Seahawks will retain any interest in re-signing veteran K.J. Wright, who remains a free agent.
Taylor will also continue to be a rush end, and the role the team is prepping him for now is the same one that Bruce Irvin had to begin the 2020 season. Irvin played SLB in the base defense then switched to rush end in the nickel.
When Irvin suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week Two, Wright moved from the weakside linebacker spot to playing strongside in the base defense with rookie Jordyn Brooks playing the WLB spot. In the nickel, Wright moved back to WLB.
But the team appears to want to hand the full-time WLB spot to Brooks, which means if Wright came back, it would likely be as the strongside backer.
Conversely, if Taylor shows he is healthy and can fill the SLB spot — which in the base defense is on the field roughly 30-40% of the time in a normal game — then there may be no need for Wright. The Seahawks also have third-year veteran Cody Barton, a third-rounder in 2019, who can play SLB.
One non-pads rookie minicamp practice is not much to go on, and asked for an assessment of how Taylor made it through, Carroll said he had to look at the film, noting, “it was the first time I had a chance to see him.’’
For Taylor, it was a momentous event after sitting out almost all of last season.
“I honestly didn’t want to get off the field,’’ he said. “… I just wanted to soak it in.’’
It was the first time Taylor had talked to the media since the day he was drafted at 48th overall.
At that time, the Seahawks said they were confident he would be ready for the season, noting Taylor had been able to be examined by doctors before visits to team facilities were shut down due to COVID.
Taylor’s injury turned into a months-long saga of frustration and mystery.
“It was pretty hard,’’ Taylor said.
Taylor clarified he did not need another surgery, saying instead the leg simply didn’t heal as expected.
“It just wasn’t working,’’ he said.
A turning point, Taylor said, arrived when he got a stem-cell injection in the leg in Dallas in November.
That led to Taylor being able to work out more and eventually to practice for one week. He looked good enough that Carroll said had the Seahawks made a deep run in the playoffs that Taylor might have been able to take part.
Taylor still has some work to do to get fully right.
He said he’s down to 245 pounds from his listed 267 as a result of the inactivity, but that he is beginning to put weight back on and hopes to play at 260 in the fall.
And Carroll, when asked if Taylor is 100%, said “that’s how we’re approaching it’’ but then, maybe remembering some of the optimistic comments of last season, said that may be “a little bit of wishful thinking’’ that Taylor’s leg issues are in the past but “we’re feeling like that is behind him.’’
What no one seems worried about is Taylor adjusting to strongside linebacker.
Taylor said he saw plenty of action at SLB at Tennessee and that “it’s not really new to me.’’
Carroll noted that the biggest difference is being asked to drop more in coverage as a pass defender but that Taylor showed in college he can handle it.
“This is not going to be a challenge for him to learn the position,’’ Carroll said.
What will be key is being able to stay on the field consistently enough in offseason camps and training camp to show he can be depended on full-time once the season begins. If not, the team could conceivably reach out again to Wright, unless he signs with another team before then.
Taylor sounded confident he’ll be just fine, saying when he’s on the field, “I don’t think about the injury at all.’’
And Taylor also recently made a big move to try to assure last season remains firmly in the unhappy past by switching jersey numbers from 58 to 52.
“I didn’t want to wear 58 anymore because I didn’t want it to be a representation of last year,’’ he said.
Once he tossed aside 58, Taylor said choosing a new number was an easy call for an intensely personal reason.
Taylor explained he decided on 52 because his mother, Peggy Tyler, wore 25 when she played basketball at Hopewell (Va.) High School. Tyler died of breast cancer in 2013 when Taylor was a sophomore in high school.
“She was really good at basketball,’’ Taylor said. “I wear 52 to represent her. … It’s the perfect number to go with to represent my mother.’’