Phil Taylor had Eagles guard Danny Watkins leaning slightly, which is exactly what he wanted. Before Watkins could recover, Taylor thrust his right forearm into Watkins’ left shoulder, knocking him sideways and clearing a path to quarterback Michael Vick.
The talent behind the powerful move is why the Browns drafted Taylor, a defensive tackle from Baylor, with the No. 21 pick in April. It’s why Baylor took a chance on him when a campus fight and assault arrest drove him from Penn State. It’s why his coaches at Baylor rave about his potential.
“He can come off the football,” Baylor defensive line coach Chris Achuff said. “He’s an explosive football player. He has one of the strongest clubs you’ll see in your life.”
The club move is what sent Watkins to the Philadelphia turf.
“You have to set it up,” Taylor said. “I’ve been using it my whole career, so eventually you’re going to get good at it.”
It was only the preseason, but Taylor opened eyes in the Eagles game. He spent much of the first half in the Philadelphia backfield, and people around the league noticed. So did the Browns sideline.
Taylor wasn’t a one-trick pony with the club. He used a swim move to get past Watkins for a pressure, and blended his speed and power to beat center Jason Kelce for a strip-sack of Vick. He even tried a spin move.
But before Canton breaks out the bronze and begins work on a statue, even Taylor’s best game wasn’t complete. He too easily accepted some double teams, and there were even times when he was content to stand at the line and let the play happen without him.
“There were flashes of what you want from a defensive tackle in this league,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “And then again, there were some areas in the game where he needed to be a little bit more explosive and consistent.”
Consistency is a word mentioned often with Taylor — as in he needs more of it. Coordinator Dick Jauron said it’s natural for guys Taylor’s size — 6-foot-3, 335 pounds — and at his position to struggle to sustain a high effort level.
“Phil plays a position that’s really hard to play in this league, particularly coming from college football today, the way it’s evolved,” Jauron said. “It’s very different from our game now. He’s learning. You can see he’s a powerful man, a big man and that’s what we’re going to need in our division. We’re going to need his strength and his toughness inside. He’s going to have to get there fast.
“So he’s got to get more consistent, but that’ll come with time. When you’re playing in there and they’re coming at you from everywhere, and you’ve got to feel stuff and you’ve got to be explosive and you can’t wait, it’s hard. But he’s doing a good job.”
The coaches don’t have to look far to find a tackle who goes hard on every snap. Ahtyba Rubin lines up next to Taylor — Rubin is usually over the center and Taylor over the right guard — and has impressed coaches throughout the league with his motor.
“Rube is a pro. He knows the game, he knows what it takes, he’s played it, he knows how hard it is,” Jauron said. “And he knows you can’t take one snap off, and in that snap you can’t take one second of the snap off. He’s a great example for Phil.”
Jauron attributes Taylor’s lulls to his conditioning. Taylor dropped more than 50 pounds after transferring to Baylor, but Jauron would like to see him in a little better cardiovascular shape.
“When an athlete like Phil is highly conditioned, then he’ll give you everything he’s got,” Jauron said. “But it’s that famous saying by a lot of coaches, by Coach (Vince) Lombardi: Fatigue makes cowards of us all. When you’re out of gas, you’re out of gas.
“So we have to help him there, too. We got to monitor him, and when he looks like he’s losing it, we got to get somebody in for him. But he’ll give you everything he’s got. Sometimes he doesn’t have it, there’s nothing left in the tank.”
Taylor’s weight ballooned to more than 380 pounds when he fell out of a routine during his troubles at Penn State. After settling in in Waco, Texas, changing his diet and getting back to consistent workouts, he dropped to 327. He and the Browns believe 335 is the perfect playing weight.
“Just watched what I was eating basically and what time I ate,” Taylor said. “I was doing a lot of eating at night, so I cut that out.”
“It’s one of the things he takes pride in, eating right, taking care of himself. It’s something he wants to do,” said Baylor assistant head coach Brian Norwood, who was defensive coordinator the last three years. He’s the father of Browns receiver Jordan. “He ran 14 110-yard sprints as a test, then played dodge ball with a bunch of players. There were a lot of firsts from a conditioning standpoint. That’s why I think his upside is so big.”
With the weight down, Taylor was able to show NFL scouts the explosiveness they crave along the line of scrimmage. Norwood and Achuff used him for about 60 snaps a game — about 20 more than he’ll play with the Browns — and said he was making tackles late in the fourth quarter.
The move to Baylor might’ve saved Taylor’s career.
He showed his immense talent with three sacks in five starts as a Penn State sophomore. He was also involved in an on-campus fight and dismissed from the team the following February.
He started two years for the Bears, and recorded 62 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble as a senior.
“It was the best move I made,” Taylor said. “Just going down to Baylor, wiping my slate clean and starting fresh.”
Norwood was a coach at Penn State with Taylor, before making the move to Baylor. Taylor’s uncles coached Norwood in Little League, and Norwood gave the Browns a solid recommendation — despite the assault charge.
“To always have that brought back up, it was a young thing, a mistake, he moved on,” Norwood said. “He’s done so many positive things and really poured himself into this team. If you evaluate those things, they shine much brighter than the incident that happened when he was 18 or 19.
“He’s a good kid. He’s always been that. He’s not a kid with baggage or bad qualities.”
Taylor was drafted to play a huge role on the Browns defense.
Jauron’s 4-3 can’t function without a great line. The tackles are expected to stuff the run and get in the quarterback’s face. The ends help with the run, and come flying off the edge as pass rushers. Taylor must be a constant, disruptive force in the middle.
If he is, general manager Tom Heckert would look like a genius.
The Browns traded out of the sixth pick — giving up the chance to take receiver Julio Jones — to acquire another
first-round pick in 2012. They then traded a third-rounder to move up from No. 27 and take the big fella from Baylor when he was sitting there at No. 21.
“He’s a very talented young man,” Norwood said. “He has a real high upside.”