Phil Taylor entered the 2011 NFL Draft with red flags attached to his resume.
Character issues. Weight problems. Medical concerns.
Despite all of that, the Browns felt comfortable enough to select Taylor, a massive defensive tackle, 21st overall. They even traded up six spots to make sure they got him.
Taylor is expected to soon join the Browns in training camp, which opens to the public at 8:45 a.m. Sunday, once he signs his rookie contract. He wouldn't be starting his professional career this summer in Berea if General Manager Tom Heckert thought those aforementioned warnings were anything other than false alarms.
So why does Heckert believe that he can trust Taylor? Well, he and his personnel staff have investigated.
Brian Norwood was one of the men whom the Browns questioned during the pre-draft process. He is a football coach at Baylor University and the father of Browns wide receiver Jordan Norwood.
The elder Norwood was an assistant coach at Penn State University during Taylor’s first two collegiate seasons. He was also the defensive coordinator at Baylor when Taylor seemingly turned his life around.
“Sometimes [young men] make mistakes,” said Brian Norwood, who’s now Baylor’s associate head coach. “Thank God for second opportunities, and I think Phil made the most of that. Coming to Baylor, it was great to see his maturity because his senior year, he was a leader.”
Taylor’s demise at Penn State was the result of off-the-field incidents, including his involvement in a fight at the campus student union in October 2007. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct and was ultimately dismissed from the football team.
“I just made a mistake as a young guy there, and I learned from it,” Taylor said after he was drafted. “You can only get better from learning from things you do in the past, so I learned from that.”
After the 2007 season, Norwood left Penn State to take control of Baylor’s defense. He thought Taylor might join him.
The two have a strong connection that was formed even before Norwood helped recruit Taylor when the latter was a standout athlete at Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine, Md. Like Taylor, Norwood hails from Prince George’s County. cqGrowing up, Norwood was coached by Taylor’s uncle, Reggie Williams.
“Phil came out with his family to visit Baylor and liked it,” Norwood said. “I was [defensive] coordinator, so he sort of knew that I had a vision for what we were gonna do, which was gonna be similar to what we did when we were at Penn State. Phil jumped on the opportunity.
“When he [came to Baylor], he didn’t look back. I can’t remember when Phil was like, ‘Hey, I’ve gotta go back home.’ His family [visited]. He always wanted to see his family. But other than that, he was really on a mission.”
After sitting out the 2008 season because of NCAA transfer rules, Taylor began a quest to resurrect his career. There was just one problem: The 6-foot-3 Taylor ballooned to about 380 pounds while he was sidelined. He recorded 25 tackles and a half sack as a junior, but he didn’t trim down to his ideal playing weight – between 330-335 pounds – until his senior season. It paid off as he compiled 62 tackles, two sacks and grabbed the attention of NFL scouts.
His weight hasn’t skyrocketed since.
“Right now, Phil watches what he eats,” Norwood said. “I’m not even concerned about the weight deal. Phil will do what he needs to do, and he’ll work his butt off. … [After he lost the weight], he was a new man. He crossed bridges that he didn’t cross before, and I think Phil wants to be an example, not only for himself, but for his family and for everybody, from a health standpoint by keeping himself in shape.”
During the NFL’s lockout, Taylor, 23, regularly worked out with Jordan Norwood in Naples, Fla. They even held some training sessions on the beach.
“He does a lot that nobody else can do at that size,” said Jordan Norwood, who also played for Penn State while Taylor was there. “During our workouts, he comes off the ball almost as fast as I do. It’s something that’s not really measured even at the combine.”
Injuries, however, are thoroughly examined at the NFL Scouting Combine, and sometimes they're even discovered. Leading up to the draft in April, CBS Sports reported that MRIs taken at the combine revealed bones growing together in both of Taylor’s feet. The condition is known to cause pain.
However, Heckert said a CAT scan proved there were “no issues whatsoever.” Taylor said he suspected a couple of teams that were interested in drafting him tried to spread rumors to deter other suitors.
“Literally, I had never heard [concerns about Taylor’s feet] before [the report surfaced],” Brian Norwood said. “Never, ever heard it before. It was probably just stuff that was put out there for whatever reason. I don’t know how that works. I was disappointed that somebody would do something like that. But in the same light, when you talk to Phil, that stuff doesn’t bother Phil. Phil’s very calm and easygoing and understands himself.”
The Norwoods understand Taylor, too. They consider him part of their family.
Brian Norwood accompanied Taylor to the draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Since then, Jordan Norwood and Taylor have spent countless hours together.
“I obviously know that those were concerns that teams had as far as what he did wrong while he was at Penn State and why he had to transfer,” Jordan Norwood said. “But those are not concerns anymore for personal reasons of my knowledge of his character before those incidents and after.
“I think going to Baylor, which is a Christian school and a strict one at that, was the right decision. It really gave him a chance to grow a little bit more and get out of a situation at Penn State, where he was influenced the wrong ways at that time.”
The Browns hope Taylor will continue to stay on the right path because they believe he could become a force in defensive coordinator Dick Jauron's 4-3 system.
“I was definitely excited when we drafted Phil Taylor,” Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. ... “This guy was a stud in high school. He was a stud in college. So to go and draft a D-lineman, I'm licking my chops.”
Some draft experts have said Taylor is better suited to play in a three-man front. Brian Norwood, however, believes Taylor will fit well with the Browns, who had a record of 5-11 last season.
“Phil has always played in a 4-3,” Brian Norwood said. “In my personal opinion, Phil could [play in any scheme]. Whatever he’s asked to do, he has the ability do it. ... He’ll be a tremendous 4-3 nose and 3-technique. He’s played both.
“He’s a very powerful player. I think his hustle and his motor are strong. I think you’ll see a guy that I believe, as he showed at Baylor his last year, the best is yet to come. I really believe that. I think he has high upside, and he’ll be a guy that people can count on.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com. Follow the Browns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/browns.abj.