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Redskins' Choice Is For Safety Concerns

Taylor Comes to Town Via No. 5 Pick in Draft

By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2004; Page E01

By the time Coach Joe Gibbs and his staff arrived at Redskins Park at 7:30 a.m. yesterday, the Washington Redskins had reached an excruciating decision on which Miami Hurricane junior to select with the No. 5 overall pick: safety Sean Taylor over tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.

A twist, forcing a turn, would occur if a team leapfrogged the Redskins to intercept the 6-foot-2, 231-pound Taylor. The first three selections -- San Diego took Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning, Oakland chose Iowa left tackle Robert Gallery and Arizona picked Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald -- left Washington's plans intact.

With friends and family around him, Sean Taylor is front and center upon learning Redskins made him their first pick. (Candace Barbot -- Miami Herald Via AP)

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However, as the New York Giants went on the clock for the fourth pick, Taylor -- with family and friends in Tavernier, Fla. -- received a call from the Cleveland Browns, at No. 6, offering to swap positions with the Giants and choose him. Washington realized its worst-case scenario might unfold when ESPN showed Taylor on the phone.

"We were nervous there," Gibbs recalled yesterday at Redskins Park, chuckling.

The Giants instead selected North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers (then traded him for Manning). The Redskins telephoned Taylor and wasted little of their 15-minute allotment before making him the highest safety picked since Eric Turner went No. 2 in 1991 to the Cleveland Browns. Winslow was chosen next, by Cleveland.

"Obviously safety is a place where you say that has to be an unusual person there," said Gibbs, who later flew to FedEx Field to speak to fans about his first NFL draft in a dozen years. "But we felt like he was very unusual."

Taylor, speaking to reporters at Redskins Park via speakerphone, said: "I thought I might go to Cleveland, but at the last minute, everything changed. . . . It's an exciting moment. I can't wait to get started and try to compete."

Perhaps the strongest argument for Taylor was that the Redskins had more holes -- safety and a pass-rushing end -- on a defense that ranked 25th in the 32-team league. With his ball-hawking skills, Taylor should help make up for the loss of Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, who was dealt to the Denver Broncos for Pro Bowl tailback Clinton Portis. Taylor is expected to start at free safety, displacing Ifeanyi Ohalete and moving Matt Bowen to his natural position of strong safety. Taylor -- a versatile player who will help on special teams -- should be a weapon in the aggressive, creative schemes of Gregg Williams, Washington's assistant head coach/defense.

"He'll be a very good fit," Williams said, "for what we want to do on defense here: to keep the attacking principles going."

On offense, the Redskins made a trade later in the draft with New Orleans to acquire a starting H-back and landed Utah State tight end Chris Cooley in the third round (No. 81 overall). The team gave up a 2005 second-round choice and will swap positions with the Saints in today's fifth round, moving from No. 137 overall to No. 151. The 6-3, 265-pound Cooley, who was one of the most prolific tight ends in Division I-A the last two seasons and finished his senior season with a team-high 62 receptions for 732 yards and six touchdowns, will compete with Mike Sellers and Brian Kozlowski.

Over the past two days, the Redskins received several offers from teams that wanted to trade up. Gibbs said yesterday morning's final draft meeting centered on whether the club should drop lower in the draft. But the Redskins weren't willing to drop more than a few spots.

After selecting Taylor, the Redskins -- who also have a sixth-round choice -- mulled a few trade scenarios, according to a Redskins source, before landing Cooley. They are expected to target a defensive lineman with their remaining picks when Rounds 4 to 7 commence at New York's Madison Square Garden.

The Redskins were one of the worst run-stopping teams in the NFL last season. But Washington believes Taylor will allow the defense to play closer to the line of scrimmage -- hindering the run -- and will give cornerbacks the freedom to be aggressive. Williams envisions Taylor -- known for his vicious hits -- becoming a formidable blitzer. (Last season, Taylor made 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.) In 12 games last season, Taylor intercepted an NCAA-leading 10 passes -- a team record -- and returned three for touchdowns. "That's the most excited I get," Taylor said.

If Taylor has a weakness, it's a penchant to overpursue. But Williams said: "As a coach I'll never want to slow him down. I've spent all my life trying to speed them up."

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