Lost in the 49ers' first victory of the season, and Manny Lawson's and Takeo Spike's beautiful interceptions, just might be the impressive play of rookie safety Taylor Mays.
Since Mays was inserted into the starting line-up three weeks ago, he has not been the liability in coverage as many had feared.
In fact, he has made the sudden and selfish departure of Michael Lewis a moot point.
Mays, originally projected as a first round draft prospect in this year’s NFL Draft, saw his stock fall due to increasing concerns about his coverage ability.
The San Francisco 49ers were often mentioned as a possible landing spot for Mays, as they lacked depth at the position, and of course, the team did quite well with another USC safety by the name of Ronnie Lott.
However, after Mays was passed up by his former college coach, Pete Carroll, the new head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, as well as every other team in the first round, he fell into the second round.
In fact, he fell all the way to the 49ers at pick 49 (oddly enough), and he landed with the team that many had predicted he would.
Mays used the press to call out his former coach, Carroll, for passing him over in favor of Texas safety Earl Thomas, but after receiving some negative attention, Mays quickly re-canted and apologized to Carroll.
He used his anger instead to drive him to get better and to learn the position, which has been described as one of the more difficult positions to pick up.
Mays stayed late at practice, he watched game film, he asked coaches so many questions that it was to the point they would hide from him.
He prompted Head Coach Mike Singletary to say,
“I didn’t know they still made players like him.”
Unlike Thomas and the Kansas City Chiefs' Eric Berry, the two safeties selected before him, Mays didn’t start right away.
But he did play on special teams and made some spectacular tackles. Against the New Orleans Saints, Mays was able to tackle the allusive Reggie Bush on a punt return and pinned the Saints at about the 12-yard line.
Mays also had a brilliant touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons where he went up and grabbed a punt blocked by teammate Dominique Zeigler and came down with both feet inside the back of the end-zone.
In yesterday’s game against the Oakland Raiders, Mays didn’t make the big interception, although he came close.
He did, however, make critical plays to keep the Raiders out of the end zone.
On the Raiders first scoring drive, Mays tackled Louis Murphy at about the two-yard line and hit him so hard he forced Murphy to fumble. Murphy did recover the ball, but it drove the Raiders back enough to allow the defense to hold them to a field goal.
On a long reverse by Murphy, it was again Mays catching him and making a touchdown saving tackle.
With the Raiders trailing 10-6 early in the fourth quarter, Oakland quarterback Jason Campbell tried to again get the ball to Murphy, but this time Mays leapt in front of him and knocked the ball away—nearly intercepting it.
Just a few plays later, Mays nearly intercepted the ball again, but instead deflected it to Miller, who made the catch. Mays was then called for holding.
Now this really wouldn't have been such a bad penalty if Mays had prevented Miller from catching the ball. If you know you're going to get beat, you have to try and prevent as much damage as possible.
Mays still has a bit to learn, and no one is confusing him with Ronnie Lott just yet. But with a season so full of negatives, we may have just found a diamond in the rough in Mays.
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