Saban, staff have expanded Taylor's role

DAVIE, Fla. – For the first time since Jason Taylor departed the University of Akron campus in the spring of 1997, the Miami Dolphins defensive end is back in a classroom, scribbling copious notes, and then going home at night to pore over his handiwork.

Entering the ninth season of a career that includes three Pro Bowls and acclaim as one of the NFL's top defensive ends, and eight years after having completed his formal education, Taylor is suddenly pursuing an advanced degree. Instead of studying for his master's degree, Taylor is trying to master the challenge the new Dolphins defensive staff has conjured up for him.

He's discovering the mental component is just as taxing as the physical side.

"Four months into it and the thing is half-full already," Taylor said of the black, spiral notebook that he totes around the team complex and that now contains more than 100 pages of diagrams, reminders and esoteric details about his ever-expanding role. "At this rate, I'm going to need another one pretty soon. There's just so much to absorb, you know?"

Indeed, if Saturday's minicamp practices were any indication of how all his notebook doodlings will be applied on the field, Taylor will eventually become a regular at his neighborhood office supply store.

Look for him soon, loyal Dolphins fans, in a notebook aisle near you. On the field, well, opponents are going to have to look for Taylor just about everywhere.

During a pair of three-play sequences in the afternoon 11-on-11 drill Saturday, Taylor was aligned at five different positions on the six snaps. In a dizzying display of diversity, he played at standup left linebacker, two steps outside the end; standup left linebacker positioned just inside the end; standup right linebacker; right end; and, finally, middle linebacker.

But the diversity training cram course isn't just about where Taylor aligns, since every position he plays also includes an array of options and responsibilities. During the morning practice, for instance, Taylor undercut a shallow crossing route by wide receiver Marty Booker and, having slid into the middle coverage zone, intercepted the pass. From the same position in the afternoon "team" drill, Taylor took a couple pre-snap steps to his right, and looped wide around the end to pressure the quarterback.

Attacking the pocket, of course, is what Taylor has done best throughout his NFL tenure, as evidenced by his 80½ career sacks, including three double-digit sack seasons. Over the last five years, he has 64 sacks. But it didn't take long for new head coach Nick Saban, assistant head coach/defense Will Muschamp and coordinator Richard Smith to realize Taylor's athleticism could be employed in an even broader spectrum.

So Taylor, who played three seasons as a small forward on the Akron basketball team, is now a defensive whirling dervish. He is a man without a position, but who might play at virtually every front-seven position during the season, a defender whose role is basically defined by the undefined nature of a job description that's still being crafted.

Every time a lightbulb goes on with one of the Miami defensive coaches, Taylor fills a few more pages in the notebook. And fills yet another role as he continues to morph into the Dolphins' front-seven, do-it-all defender in what will most often be a 3-4 scheme.

On one play, Taylor could be coming off the edge from his familiar right end spot, trying to knock down the passer. The next snap, he might drift into the left flat from an outside linebacker alignment, and try to knock down the pass instead. He'll have his long arms up to try to obscure the passing lanes at times and then drop into the passing lanes at others. Oh, yeah, he'll have to play the run, too, a skill at which Taylor's consistency has often been overlooked and undervalued.

There are even rumblings – most of them fueled by Taylor, some teammates suspect, quite frankly – that he might take some snaps on offense at tight end.

"They've thrown a lot at me, but to tell the truth, sometimes you need a new challenge like this after so many years of doing the same thing, so it's been kind of refreshing at the same time," Taylor said. "What I like is that they're doing everything possible, it seems like, to take advantage of my athleticism. I've been able to use my basketball background at times and that's fun. I mean, playing linebacker is just like being a small forward in basketball. The positions require the same [skill] set.

"There have been a few times, like when I'm dropped off into the flat, out in space and may be responsible for covering the 'seven' route, where I've thought, 'Whoa, what am I doing out here?' In those situations, you just sort of run around, try to look like you know what you're doing, and then hope it's the right thing. But those instances are [decreasing] now. It's not like everything is second nature yet, but it's getting there."

That the Saban-led staff would ask so much from Taylor, and fully expect him to deliver, isn't particularly surprising. He is arguably the most naturally gifted athlete on the roster. But remember, Saban is the man Patriots coach Bill Belichick most often calls to discuss football theory, although their annual offseason visits will probably cease now, with the two men battling in the same division. Belichick has noted that Saban is the best football coach he knows and debunked the notion he is Saban's mentor.

But the two are undeniably like-minded, certainly in lockstep on defensive philosophies, and the constant foundation of Belichick's defense is the hybrid "edge" player. It isn't by happenstance that Belichick has so many dual-role defenders such as Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin around.

In fact, asked to cite the player whose role he feels he will most emulate in 2005, Taylor quickly mentioned Vrabel, and then Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter. For his part, Saban said the Taylor role isn't modeled after any singular player, and he could be singularly brilliant in establishing his own brand of defensive diversity.

"He's such a natural athlete," Saban said, "that it's only natural we try to find a lot of ways to let him make plays. And Jason has worked hard, as well, to demonstrate to us all the different ways he can help. He's really embraced it."

Said Zach Thomas, the Dolphins middle linebacker who also happens to be Taylor's brother-in-law and confidant: "I think Jason is finding it challenging but also lots of fun. But he's going to have an unlimited number of ways to make plays now."

Only a few months ago, Taylor was more uncertain than unlimited, as rumors swirled about Saban's plan to convert the Miami defense to the 3-4 front that he favored during his years as a college head coach. Taylor eschewed public comments but his agent and close friend, Gary Wichard, noted that his client was a defensive end, not a windup toy. And last weekend, Taylor conceded that every time the Dolphins signed another veteran end, like Kevin Carter or Vonnie Holliday, he wondered where, or even if, he fit in with Saban's game plan.

It was, Taylor admitted, an uneasy time, until he met with Saban to discuss his role.

"For a while, there was a real 'Rome is burning' kind of sense to things," Taylor said. "Even my wife would ask me questions about what was going on and I'd say, 'Baby, I don't even know that I'm going to be here, let alone how it's going to work.' You hear things, see things, feel things, and you draw your own conclusions. But when I sat down with Nick, he laid things out. I could finally exhale. The things we talked about, the plan that he had, at least on paper, it was exciting."

Transferred from paper to the huddle, off the pages of Taylor's half-filled notebook and onto the field, the diverse role might be even more exciting in application.

For the last several years, Taylor pointed out, he has almost always aligned at right end, and opponents could game-plan around that inevitability. So Taylor was forced to take on double-team blocking, to be chip-blocked by fullbacks, to have pass protectors attempt to take out his legs. His success aside, Taylor was a sitting duck, and his body paid a steep price for the abuse offensive coordinators plotted against him.

Those same coordinators in 2005 will first have to figure out where Taylor is aligned before worrying about how to keep him out of their backfield. Stoked by his new role, Taylor is clearly excited about the new possibilities.

"Look, we're in uncharted waters here for me, but it's [advanced] now to where I'm doing more than just treading water out there," Taylor said. "You get to a point in your career where maybe you need to be re-challenged. And this is definitely something new and exciting and something I intend to make work."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.