From the time he was drafted with the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft in April to the day he received a $13 million signing bonus in July and through his outstanding preseason performances in August, it was generally assumed that rookie Sean Taylor would be the Washington Redskins' starting free safety this season and for many years to come.
Taylor combined the speed of a cornerback with the size of a linebacker -- he's 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds -- and was a playmaking force in the exhibition games, forcing two fumbles, picking off three passes and scoring one touchdown.
Andre Lott had none of that going for him. The third-year safety was a late pick -- 159th overall in 2002 from Tennessee -- who lacked Taylor's physical prowess (5-10, 196 pounds) and had never started a game in his NFL career. Yet when the Redskins opened their season, it was Lott and not Taylor on the field. Lott played the majority of the Tampa game and started last Sunday against New York as well.
The coaches have not said who will start at free safety tomorrow night against Dallas and Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense, has repeatedly played down the significance of who starts and who does not. But Lott has clearly impressed the coaching staff with his study habits and football intellect. While Taylor seems poised to be a dominant player at some point, Lott has made a case to get on the field with considerable regularity as well.
"He's doing everything that we've asked him to do," safeties coach Steve Jackson said, "and very quietly he's having a pretty good year. We just gave him an opportunity and he took advantage of it. He's a quiet guy and every opportunity that he had he studied hard and worked hard and put himself into a position to be able to handle the role that he's been given."
Lott, 25, was known for his special teams play before this season, registering one sack and 15 tackles in his two-year career. With starting safeties Matt Bowen and Ifeanyi Ohalete returning for training camp and Taylor primed for a starting role, Lott was overlooked in the preseason. But Ohalete was cut after two preseason games and Lott continued to provide steady play, displaying an ability to play both safety and cornerback. He spent extra hours at Redskins Park to learn opposing offenses and Williams's defense.
"It's exciting when you know you that you can go out and show the coaches all that you can do," Lott said. "If you can play more than one position I think it's a big asset for anybody in the secondary and that's something I like to do. I'm a lot smarter than what I used to be. That's one of the things you have to be in the NFL; the physical part comes with it, but you have to be smart to really be able to perform."
Wide receiver Taylor Jacobs, who played against Lott in college, said: "He's a smart player and regardless of whoever has the most talent -- around here the talent level is close -- but sometimes people study a whole lot more than others and he's just a good player who knows how to play all the positions out there. I know he's doing a whole lot more than he did last year and I'm really excited for him. He's a nice, humble guy."
Taylor was on the sideline for much of the first half of Washington's 20-14 loss to the Giants but played most of the second half. He has been featured mostly in packages that call for extra defensive backs and was one of five safeties dressed for the game. Reserves Ryan Clark and Todd Franz were used in passing situations. "The interesting thing about it is all these guys have the ability and smarts and toughness to excel in this league," Jackson said. "We feel comfortable putting any of them in there. As you could see in the last ballgame, every safety we have played. That's a very unique luxury to have."
Not starting the opening game was clearly a surprise for Taylor, who showed excellent coverage skills and a ferocious hitting ability at the University of Miami. But he has handled the situation well and realizes he has much to learn about the pro game.
"I think I'm taking steps on the right path," Taylor said, "and I'm seeing a little more each week and plays are starting to become more easy for me to make and if I do certain things in certain ways, then it makes my work less. So I've been learning. . . . Watching [from the sideline] isn't too hard; all you've got to do is open your eyes. It's just when you go in you've got to be ready and you've got to be loose and there's no time to get two plays to warm up. You're in there and you could be out on the next play, so you've got to be ready and take full advantage of it."
Lott has endeared himself to coaches and teammates with his work behind the scenes. "You tell him one time and he's got it," Jackson said. "He's got a great memory."
He has leaned on veterans to get a better grasp of the ways in which quarterbacks and receivers go about attacking defenses and has been one of many previously unheralded players to shine under the tutelage of Williams and the defensive staff.
"He did everything right, man," cornerback Fred Smoot said of Lott. "He did everything right. He's a great athlete and I think he fits well in Gregg's scheme. That's why Gregg loves him so much: He can cover, he can tackle and he does anything Gregg asks."