Wed, 01 Dec 2021

Keith Taylor growing more and more confident

Carolina Panthers
16 Oct 2021, 04:44 GMT+10

Darin Gantt

CHARLOTTE - The Panthers figured they'd be counting on a rookie cornerback this year, and they felt pretty good about it because of his ability, his preparation, and his confidence.

The funny thing is, even though it's fifth-rounder Keith Taylor Jr. instead of first-rounder Jaycee Horn at the moment, they still feel pretty good about it.

For veteran defensive coordinator Phil Snow, there might be a difference between the two corners in terms of name recognition, but there are also a lot of similarities.

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"Taylor's a lot like Horn in that he doesn't really care who he goes against," Snow said recently. "He's not intimidated by the competition. Which for a rookie is special.

"I think he'll go out and compete against whoever he's up against. For a corner, that's a big deal. That you don't care what the name on the jersey is, you just compete and play to your standard. He has those qualities, so we'll see how far he comes."

Taylor got his most extensive work last week against the Eagles, and acquitted himself well. He played 47 snaps of defense (after playing just 15 snaps combined in the first four games).

And if you put stock in the grades of Pro Football Focus, Taylor's the third-rated rookie cornerback in the league in terms of coverage grades. Those kinds of numbers of subjective, but there's no doubt that the Panthers are more confident in Taylor than you'd think they might be in a player of his draft status and lack of experience.

"I thought he played really well," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said of Taylor after the Eagles game. "I think Keith is very confident, and because of his length, he plays even faster than he is. He's a competitive kid, a tough kid. And that's a pretty cool room right now. You walk in, you've got A.J. Bouye and Rashaan Melvin and Stephon Gilmore in there, so three veteran players, and Donte Jackson who is becoming a veteran. And then a lot of young guys. There's a lot of knowledge being passed around.

"I think Keith, to put him out there, I don't think twice. We've got a lot of confidence in him."

Part of that is just Taylor. At 6-foot-3, he has the same kind of long build as Horn, though he's not nearly as densely muscled (especially in the upper body). But he's fast, and as Snow explained, he doesn't have the bearing of a rookie who walks into his first round of NFL stadiums a little wide-eyed and full of wonder.

Asked if there was ever a time when he was a bit in awe of an opponent, even in his early years in college, he shook it off.

"No, never," he replied. "Actually, it wasn't a matchup, but playing against Saquon Barkley in the Fiesta Bowl (in 2017, Taylor's freshman year), that was pretty fun to watch. We lost the game, but watching him and how easy he made things look, that was crazy to me. But nobody else really seemed like a 'Wow' guy to me.

"I think I've just always been like that. Back in high school, I was never like that. In college, I was never like that. I've always been very neutral. If I make a play, sure I get juiced up, but if I made a bad play, it's onto the next one. That's how I've always been."

That serves him well here, in a culture built on "What's next" as a philosophy rather than a question. It also helps that Taylor is an obsessive note-taker, armed with a highlighter and his own method of absorbing all the information being thrown his way.

"I'm a big note-taker for sure," he said.

He needs to be, to keep up with all the knowledge he's surrounded by. As defensive passing game coordinator Jason Simmons explained earlier this season, the Panthers begin the indoctrination process by throwing everything at rookies. All their defensive backs are expected to know the assignments for every player in the secondary. That way, when injuries hit (as they have already), they're better prepared to handle the adjustments.

"The thing about it is, I just have to believe those guys will trust their training when they're out there," Simmons said. "I just think it's one of those deals where opportunity meets preparation, and those guys have earned the right to go out there and play. Once again, I don't have any apprehension about putting young guys out there. I mean, I got an opportunity as a young coach. So you have to get an opportunity as a young player."

Taylor said he's expanded his notes over the years, and will now scribble into the margins information such as defensive line gaps, as he tries to learn the entire defense. That's helped as he's been thrown in now, with the injuries to Horn and safety Juston Burris, and Gilmore not being eligible to play until next week. But they were confident enough in him to play him last week and deactivate Melvin, letting the rookie learn on the fly.

It's more than Taylor was expecting so soon this year, but he's handling it well.

"I felt like I'd spend a lot of time learning and being patient and knowing it's a long season and a long process to earning a spot on that field," he said. "So just my thing is taking in any points any tips A.J. and Donte have, those veterans, getting anything I can and learning and using that to my advantage to stay ready."

Snow has made it clear that he expects all his defensive backs to play to "the standard," regardless of their experience. But he said he has a level of trust in Taylor because of the way he works.

"The atmosphere, and who he's playing against and all that, doesn't seem to bother him at all," Snow said. "I said that earlier in camp, Jaycee and him, for rookies, they don't care who they're playing against, or how good the guy is. They go out and they play and they're confident in their abilities. That's fun to watch as a rookie."

The fact that the situation doesn't seem too big for him, well, that's a bonus.

"Honestly it just comes down to preparation," Taylor said. "Back in college, I was always taught that whenever your opportunity comes, you're a starter. Whether it was in practice or if you get put into a game. My mindset going into anything and everything is if you stay ready, you don't have to get ready. That's my thought process."

And if you approach it that way, it makes it easy to forget you're a rookie.

"It's not hard at all," Taylor said of walking in the door with confidence. "At the end of the day, it's just football to me. I don't see myself as a rookie, I see myself as another football player, and I can hang with the rest of them. That's just how I see myself."

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