Seahawks' Darrell Taylor finally ready to get going after missing rookie season

Darrell Taylor enters this season with a new number and possibly a new position after missing his rookie year due to a leg injury. Elaine Thompson/AP

RENTON, Wash. -- After being assigned 58 last year, Darrell Taylor has a new jersey number. He chose 52 to honor his late mother, Peggy Tyler, who wore 25 as a standout basketball player in high school. She passed away when he was 16.

The reason Taylor wanted to ditch 58 in the first place? He associated it with the disappointment of his lost rookie season.

Taylor didn't play a down for the Seattle Seahawks after they drafted him in the second round, instead spending the entire year on the Non-Football Injury list as his recovery from leg surgery took much longer than expected.

That made him eligible to take part in last weekend's rookie minicamp, where he took another step toward putting 2020 behind him and gave the Seahawks their first real look at the role he could fill in 2021.

"I honestly didn't want to get off the field but we had to go lift and do all that stuff," Taylor said after the first of two practices. "I just wanted to soak it in because I hadn't been out here in a long time and it just felt really, really, really good to be out there. The sun, helmet, everything. It just felt good."

Taylor practiced for all of one week last season, a reason why his presence at rookie camp overshadowed the Seahawks' three draft picks, 13 undrafted free agents and other eligible non-rookies. It was also because he was working at a new position.

Taylor will still rush off the edge as a Leo end in passing situations, which is what the Seahawks envisioned all along. But they want to see if he can also play strong-side -- or Sam -- linebacker on early downs, a dual role that Bruce Irvin previously filled. Taylor's duties at Tennessee included playing Sam in the Volunteers' 3-4 front and rushing off the edge, so he's not starting from scratch.

"He did a lot in college," coach Pete Carroll said. "He did a lot of dropping, he did a lot of rushing and we liked him as a rusher first, which we still do. But he's got all of the athleticism ... really light on his feet. Burst, explosion, [change of direction] is really good. So this is not going to be a challenge for him to learn the position. We need to see how he feels when we do mix in dropping and rushing, knowing that we want to see him as an outside rusher as well in passing situations. So we're double teaching him."

One Seahawks source told ESPN that the team rated Taylor as the second-best pass-rusher in last year's draft behind only Chase Young. They considered taking him in the first round but instead picked linebacker Jordyn Brooks at No. 27, then traded up 11 spots to get Taylor in the middle of the second.

Taylor was coming off surgery in January 2020 to insert a titanium rod in his fibula after playing through a stress fracture in 2019. Based in part on an up-close look the Seahawks' medical staff got during a pre-draft visit, they believed he would recover in time to be a significant factor in their pass-rush rotation.

But he didn't practice until the week of Seattle's wild-card loss to the Los Angeles Rams in January. That was after a few stops and starts, different treatment attempts and countless questions about when and if the 48th overall pick would get on the field. Taylor flew to Dallas for a stem-cell injection in late November that helped get him over the hump.

The ever-optimistic Carroll said the team believes Taylor's injury is behind him, though he acknowledged there's "a little wishful thinking" involved.

"I don't think that leg will ever be behind me because it's just going to be a part of me because I had surgery on my leg, but I'm definitely looking forward and [it's] a fresh start, for sure," Taylor said. "But it's going to fuel me. I feel like my injury from last year is going to fuel me."

The 6-foot-4 Taylor was listed at 267 pounds as a rookie but said he plans to play at around 260 this year. That's makes him a near match size-wise to the 6-3, 258-pound Irvin, who played Sam and rushed off the edge for most of his first stint with the Seahawks and during his brief return last season.

Irvin was solely an end as a rookie in 2012 before the Seahawks expanded his role to include Sam in 2013. It was a way to take advantage of his athleticism and to keep him on the field among a loaded group of edge-rushers that added Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril that offseason. Taylor's foray comes under similar circumstances, with the Seahawks' current collection of edge-rushers rivaling what they had on that 2013 Super Bowl team.

And while there's no guarantee Taylor sticks there, the experiment seemingly lessens the chances of the Seahawks re-signing K.J. Wright. With Brooks on the weak side and perennial All-Pro Bobby Wagner entrenched in the middle, Sam is the only opening at linebacker in Carroll's 4-3 defense.

Wright played some of the best football of his career when he moved from the weak side to the strong side after Irvin tore his ACL in September. He's a known commodity and brings a decade of experience and leadership.

But the Seahawks appear to want a younger, more athletic and less expensive player who can double as an edge-rusher. Wright has always been a good blitzer but doesn't put his hand in the ground. Cody Barton, one in-house alternative, has experience at Sam but also doesn't offer the rush ability that Carroll called a "really big part of the scheme" at that position.

"You want to have the threat of those guys on the edge really being a factor," Carroll said. "Just in the first couple days, Darrell looks very much the part. I know coming off the field today, [defensive-line coach Clint Hurtt] was real fired up about getting a chance to work him in his pass-rush drills and all. We really haven't seen much of him ... so these are the first couple practices that we've had.

"It is really important to the scheme. He does have the kind of makeup that fits it well. So at this point he's going to get a heck of a shot to show us what he can do there."