Other than the generosity of Dan Snyder's checkbook, no Washington Redskins topic generates more praise than the performance, future and personality of safety Sean Taylor.
His teammates point to his physical conditioning and mental aptitude as reasons why last year's Pro Bowl appearance is the first of many.
He's a beast, linebacker Marcus Washington said.
On the field, he's an animal, safety Pierson Prioleau said.
His coaches point to his emergence as a vocal leader and unselfishness to play any role at any place on the field as reasons why he remains the right guy to build a secondary around.
It's amazing how he's found ways to improve, assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said.
He's getting better and better every day, safeties coach Steve Jackson said.
So is this the Season of Sean? Is this when the takeaway total escalates, the fundamental tackle is generally made and the touchdown total escalates?
Although not close to the biggest question mark on the Redskins' defense, the season in a sense revolves around Taylor. If he's ready to take the next step, he could join the position's elite. If not, then it could be another long fall for the defense.
The Redskins are banking that a simplified role will allow Taylor to present complicated problems for an opponent.
Whereas the first three years of Williams' defense were about throwing everything at opponents in an effort to confuse them, this year will represent a philosophical shift — putting together a game plan that adjusts to a player's strengths rather than having the player adjust his game to fit the scheme.
What it does is remove the clutter from him, Williams said. It lets him refine his go-get-the-ball techniques. ... We all get better when we shorten our checklist of what we have to work on. We've done a better job identifying that for Sean and other players. We've identified fewer things to master, and hopefully that will turn into production.
From afar, it appeared Taylor struggled last year. He had only one interception and didn't recover a fumble (he forced three). And he missed a lot of tackles.
But, Jackson said, There were a lot of situations outside Sean's control last year, and he was doing what he thought was best for the Redskins.
Ideally, the Redskins would like to use Taylor as a true free safety, a player who stays 20 yards away from the line of scrimmage and delivers big hits and takeaways. In 2006, his role was anything but free — it included covering the slot receiver, playing near the line to help a struggling run defense and making quick decisions on which cornerback or linebacker to help in double coverage.
By adding rookie LaRon Landry to play strong safety, Taylor will be allowed to play his position the way he did in college, when he had 10 interceptions in 2003.
Taylor has only seven interceptions in 46 NFL games. Figuring out how to examine his complete body of work through three NFL seasons is difficult.
On the one hand, he has stayed healthy (two missed games), produced high tackle numbers (76, 70, 111) and delivered big hits (tight ends are aware he's on the field).
On the other, he has one regular-season touchdown, more personal foul penalties (12) than interceptions and appears to be a fundamentally flawed tackler.
Taylor's first three years compare favorably to the league's other top safeties. He has 257 tackles. Chicago's Mike Brown had 258 from 2000 to 2002 and Dallas' Roy Williams had 265 from 2002 to 2004. Taylor's combined 14 interceptions/forced fumbles are more than New England's Eugene Wilson (11), Philadelphia's Brian Dawkins (10) and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu (10) had in their first three seasons.
The only safety Taylor doesn't measure up to is Baltimore's Ed Reed, who had 232 tackles and 21 interceptions in his first three seasons.
Jackson countered by saying that many of the aforementioned safeties have played with the same people for years. In just three years, Taylor has started alongside seven different teammates.
Some safeties, they've played together for a long time, Jackson said. We didn't have that last year. We had it two years ago. When you're out there and don't know where the corner's going to be, where the linebackers are going to be, whether the scheme has changed for this game because of injuries, that's a lot different than going into the game knowing you've played with a guy for two years.
Those around Taylor acknowledge the lack of takeaways and say the new role will increase his interception opportunities. But they defend his tackling abilities.
He's an excellent tackler, Williams said. The tackles that you talk about him missing is because he's trying to blow somebody up. One of the things that comes with experience is being a smart tackler.
Around the team, all parties say Taylor has become more willing to speak up. Around the media is another story. The team's media relations staff has tried to set up a group interview session for Taylor the last three days, but each attempt has been futile.
For the fourth straight year, that leaves others to do Taylor's talking. And Prioleau — who has become close with Taylor — predicts big things.
He's starting to cross the bridge from athletic ability to knowing the game, Prioleau said. He's having a phenomenal camp. The way we play him this year, hopefully we'll see more production.