Is USC's Taylor Mays a first-round safety?

I think we can all agree that USC’s Taylor Mays was the one player who came out of Indianapolis in February as the overall winner of the combine. His draft stock took a dramatic climb because we saw a safety who’s listed at 6-3, 230 pounds run a 40 in reported “unofficial times” in the high 4.2s.

Crazy speed for a player his size who’s expected to play in the secondary.

But is it going to translate to the NFL? That’s the question for Mays, who is all over the place when it comes to draft boards. I talked to two NFL defensive backs coaches Monday, and as usual when Mays is brought up, one gave him a first-round grade while the other didn’t. While one league source, who isn't as high on Mays as others, told me that the SC safety will become a much more attractive prospect if he falls into the second round.

And as our own Michael Lombardi wrote yesterday in his draft notes, more and more teams may be willing to pass on Mays if he’s still on the board when they’re on the clock in the first round.

This is usually the issue when a player like Mays is so impressive at the combine and at private workouts — because the tape tells a different story. It’s tough for him to change directions and work in lateral space. He was able to get away with taking false steps because he had more ability and more straight-line speed to close on the football. We can even go back to Mobile, Ala., and the Senior Bowl. Mays was stiff, didn’t look fluid when he tried to turn his hips and run, and had some people thinking he would be more effective at the NFL level as a linebacker.

Plus, will he make plays in the secondary on Sundays? He has average ball skills, and it’s hard to envision a player suddenly turning into a playmaker once he puts on an NFL uniform.

Special teams? I would want this guy on every one of my coverage units, in all of my punt block schemes and matched up against the opposing club’s best special teams player for four quarters. That’s a given. But that isn’t worth a first-round pick. You can find these players later in the draft.

Instead, we’re talking about a player who has first-round grades from some teams yet is still viewed as a potential risk because those workouts we saw aren’t guaranteed to translate to the field.

And with Mays, I think we’ll see the true value of those workouts this weekend. Because every scout, coach and GM has been thinking about those numbers when they turned on the tape during their draft prep. It is hard not to. But can they take that chance on a player who could have major issues playing the middle of the field and getting off the numbers in Cover 2 schemes on Sundays against top talent as a rookie?

The hard part is that the potential is there. I like the idea of Mays developing in time at the NFL level. But how high do you draft on potential and numbers?

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