Sean Taylor was just scratching the surface of reaching his potential when he was murdered in November of 2007. He was just 24.
Taylor was in the middle of the best season of his career; in just nine games, the safety had a career-high five interceptions. The year prior, Taylor, 23 at the time, was named to his first Pro Bowl.
On the latest edition of NBC Sports' Sports Uncovered podcast "Sean Taylor: The NFL Superstar We Didn't Get to Know," several of Taylor's former teammates and NFL analysts look back at his career, wondering where amongst the all-time greats the safety would be had he not been killed.
Former NFL safety Louis Riddick, who was the Redskins director of pro personnel from 2005-2007, believes Taylor was more skilled than Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed.
"Sean had more physical skills than Ed Reed," Riddick said. "It just would have been a matter of would he have been able to develop the intuition and the ability to anticipate and play mind games with quarterbacks on the level that Ed Reed did, probably better than anybody. We're talking about true greatest of all time status, which is what I truly believe he would have reached."
Ex-Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, who was part of that special Redskins' 2004 draft class along with Taylor, called the safety "everything you ask for in a professional athlete". He believes Taylor's death is not the reason so many people still try to emulate the safety on the field.
"It's not a tribute that guys are looking at Sean and saying because he had this terrible situation. It's because of the way he played the game," Cooley said. "All of us grew up with role models in the game, by Sean Taylor stood out over and over again. As a playmaker, as a big-hitter, as a guy that played relentlessly, fearlessly, he is the epitome of how you play the game. He was everything you ask for in a professional athlete. So that's why people want to be Sean."
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Opponents, Cooley said, were afraid of Taylor.
"Sean put fear into people when they were playing," Cooley said. "You can go back and watch the Terrell Owens play. Go back and watch a number of plays. People turned down balls in the middle of the field because of Sean."
NBC Sports Washington Redskins analyst Trevor Matich believes Taylor had the perfect combination of athletic ability and work ethic to become one of the NFL's greats.
"I saw him care about the craft of defensive football, care about not just what to do, but why it should be done that way," Matich said. "Sean Taylor was one of those elite athletes that cared about the grind, he cared about becoming better. Not just running around hitting people, but where to by, why and how. He was evolving into a player like Ed Reed, like J.J. Watt today, that fans will buy a ticket to go watch a defensive player."
Taylor's close friend and Redskins teammate, Clinton Portis, said that if Taylor were still playing today, he would have nothing else to prove.
"If Sean would not be playing this game at this moment, it would just be because he'd have nothing else to prove," Portis said. "It wasn't a challenge anymore. But you're talking about an individual that could have played forever."
For Santana Moss, also a close friend of Taylor, Taylor's performance against the Green Bay Packers and Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre in 2007 showed the wideout how great the safety truly could be.
"Sean baited Brett Favre like four different times," Moss said. "Throw that ball there and see if he gets it. Brett being Brett, a gunslinger, he went 'OK, you're going to leave that guy open?' and Sean would take off and go after the ball. He dropped two of the picks. He ended up with two and he dropped two. He could have had four that night. Brett spoke about the incredible talent at safety for us, and he couldn't believe that Sean was making those plays.
"[Taylor] was a guy that had a range, second to none," Moss continued. "He can get to anywhere on the field from any position on it. That right there wows you more than anything."
Moss emphasized how much Taylor meant to the Redskins organization, and how the team will never be able to find a replacement for Taylor.
"Sean just meant so much to this franchise. When you look back at it, we've been hurting at the safety position for a long time," Moss said. "We've been trying to find replacement after replacement. No matter how many guys come in here that he inspired, they can't be Sean."
The wide receiver listed two of Washington's most recent safeties, Landon Collins and D.J. Swearinger, as examples of good players who tried to replicate Taylor. But to Moss, any many other, no one can replicate No. 21.
"Landon Collins is here now; he can't be Sean. [D.J.] Swearinger was here a couple of years ago, he can't be Sean," Moss said. "[Laron] Landry was here with Sean. You could see when Sean was gone, Landry wasn't even Landry no more. It's just one of those situations man where he meant so much to this organization and that position, our defense hasn't even been the same without him."
And he was only getting started.
"It's the what-if that we will never know," Moss said.
Listen to the full episode of Sports Uncovered's Sean Taylor: The NFL Superstar We Didn't Get to Know, click here.
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