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Taywan Taylor Has the Tools to Be the Biggest Winner of 2017 NFL Combine

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 2, 2017

BOWLING GREEN, KY - DECEMBER 03: Taywan Taylor #2 of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers signals for a first down during the game against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs at Houchens-Smith Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Western Kentucky defeated Louisiana Tech 58-44. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The more you flip through scouting reports prior to the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, the more it begins to feel like every notable prospect was a 4- or 5-star recruit coming out of high school.

There are times, though, when a prospect does more than just tumble through the claws of college football's talent-finding machine. They can go unnoticed nearly to the point of invisibility, becoming a nobody and a zero.

Or rather, a 0-star recruit like Western Kentucky wide receiver Taywan Taylor.

"It definitely drives me being a 0-star recruit out of high school," Taylor told Kyle Crabbs of FanRag Sports at the Senior Bowl. "... That's one of the reasons why I go so hard."

That taunting number pushed Taylor during his four years with the Hilltoppers. In 2016, he grew to become the polar opposite of overlooked and forgotten, finishing third in the nation with 1,730 receiving yards. He also ended the year tied for third nationwide with 17 receiving touchdowns while averaging a secondary-busting 17.7 yards per catch.

At the combine, he's likely going to bury the number zero even further.  

In fact, Taylor might bury a few things at the combine, including an imaginary needle when he runs the 40-yard dash. He could zoom past every other second-tier receiver as he rises to the top of that group, potentially causing his stock to climb higher and make him one of the most sought-after pass-catchers in the 2017 draft class.

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That's where some have him ranked now, including Rotoworld's Josh Norris. By the end of combine week, Taylor's name could be glowing brightly, and it's not hard to see a future where he goes from 0-star to gold star.

Josh Norris @JoshNorris

I'll post full WR ranks for the podcast, but here's the top 5: 1 Corey Davis 2 John Ross 3 Mike Williams 4 Taywan Taylor 5 Carlos Henderson https://t.co/L7gMabJuCg

We can look back to the spring of 2016 for a taste of what to expect from Taylor at the combine. He blazed through the same drills during spring testing and posted an 11'5" broad jump, a 39.5-inch vertical and a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash, according to Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com, who put Taylor on his "Top 20 Freaks" list.

If he duplicates that 40 time in Indianapolis, Taylor would fall only narrowly behind Will Fuller, the former Notre Dame standout and current Houston Texans receiver who posted the fastest time among wideouts in 2016 at 4.32 seconds.

At that point, Taylor would confront some common labels as a small-school riser.

He would be called an Underwear Olympics all-star. He would be called an athlete, not a football player. Heck, he may even be slapped with an overrated tag after being underrated for far too long.

But those assumptions would be a mistake. Consult the supporting evidence, and it becomes clear Taylor is much more than just a gifted athletehe's a well-rounded receiver.

He put together back-to-back 1,400-plus-yard receiving years to end his college football career, scoring 17 touchdowns in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He did that by being more than just fast.

Taylor scored 41 touchdowns in four years at Western Kentucky.
Taylor scored 41 touchdowns in four years at Western Kentucky.Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Taylor is often slow, then fast and then faster. His movements can be sudden and jarring, with speeds changing quickly and at a precise, intricately timed moment.

"Taylor's polish in routes is very strong," Crabbs wrote in December. "He understands the how and when of manipulating route stems as a means of beating various coverage shades."

It doesn't take long to find examples of that technique and intelligence blend at work. One from Taylor's 2016 tape comes from his season opener against Rice, when he finished with 165 yards on only five catches. Incredibly, it was one of the eight times Taylor recorded 120-plus yards as a senior.

Taylor accelerated downfield at the snap, and then slowed slightly while planting his right foot. The defensive back had to step up and respect Taylor's quick lateral movement and the possibility of an outside-breaking route. But in a flash, he pivoted back toward the middle of the field, reaching an even higher speed after breaking off the post route.

Just like that, the coverage was gone, and Taylor had created a canyon of separation. But his job wasn't done yet. The 5'11", 198-pound receiver had to dive forward at full speed to corral an overthrown ball.

It was all routine work for the two-time First Team All-Conference USA player.

Josh Norris @JoshNorris

This is a Taywan Taylor account #seniorbowl https://t.co/IAoG8SZRuF

The next common line you may hear about Taylor is one every small-school prospect fights: the lack of high-end competition.

To some extent, that's unavoidable. As a 0-star recruit, Taylor played where he was wanted. He couldn't control or care about his opponents. Instead, he went about the business of tearing apart the likes of North Texas (six receptions for 166 yards) and Middle Tennessee State (12 receptions for 197 yards) in 2016.

What separates Taylor from other low-conference prospects is that he didn't fade against tougher defenses. 

One week after Taylor dominated Rice, he shined against Alabama, catching nine passes for 121 yards. He also thrived during a tough test versus another SEC defense in 2015, posting 103 yards on 10 catches against LSU.

Those games served as the ultimate proving ground for Taylor. He emerged from them showing he belonged.

After impressing at the Senior Bowl, a strong combine performance might mean Taylor will know his NFL future early in Day 2 of the draft. Or perhaps even late in Day 1.

NFL.com draft expert Bucky Brooks hadn't seen much of Taylor prior to the Senior Bowl, which serves as the unofficial draft-season kickoff. Like many, his eyes widened as Taylor showcased the suddenness in his route running.

"He displays exceptional balance and body control as a route-runner, particularly on intermediate routes like digs, curls, and comebacks," Brooks wrote. "Taylor was so smooth getting in and out of his breaks that I believe he would be a perfect fit in an offense that places a premium on route-running."

His combination of speed and pinpoint route-running to keep defenders off balance led to a regular sight: yards in crater-sized chunks.

Dane Brugler @dpbrugler

40+ yard catches last two seasons: 26 - Taywan Taylor 20 - Shelton Gibson 16 - Carlos Henderson 15 - Dede Westbrook, Corey Davis, KD Cannon

Taylor connected on the most home run swings over the past two seasons, and it wasn't close. He had six more 40-plus-yard receptions than any other college receiver, as Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com noted above. No receiver who reached the 90-catch mark in 2016 averaged more yards per reception.

There are still areas of concern with Taylor, which could make general managers hesitate.

With his smaller size and shiftiness, Taylor is best suited for the slot, and some teams may not be eager to invest a high pick in a receiver who is somewhat limited. And as NFL.com's Lance Zierlein observed in his scouting report, there are times when Taylor's technique fails him and he becomes a body-catcher. That results in the occasional drop when he's battling for balls in heavy traffic.

But those mistakes are scattered. Taylor has generally proven that, when the difficulty level is at its highest, so is his performance.

In 2015, he was targeted 15 times on catchable deep balls (traveling 20-plus yards through the air), according to College Football Focus. He converted 10 of those targets into touchdowns. And here's the most reassuring part: He didn't drop a single deep target that season.

How high Taylor ascends up the draft board at his position will rest with a few factors aligning. Among the teams selecting late on Day 1 or early on Day 2, one must have more than just a need at wide receiver. A front office also has to identify a scheme fit for a joystick-powered slot weapon.

It doesn't take much reaching to imagine a scenario where a team pulls the trigger on Taylor early, feeling confident in its ability to maximize his talent.

Taylor can make that scenario go from possible to probable if he does what's expected at the combine.

The expectation is he'll establish himself as one of the most athletically skilled talents at his position.

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