RICHMOND — Ever since the Washington Redskins’ Mike Shanahan-mandated switch to the 3-4 defense back in 2010, the nose tackle position has resembled somewhat of a revolving door.
Albert Haynesworth didn’t fit, injury toppled Ma’ake Kemoeatu. Barry Cofield manned the post for three years before injury derailed him as well. Terrance Knighton made an impact in his lone season with Washington in 2015, but not consistent enough of one for the team to want to resign him. And the Redskins went with a committee last season with Ziggy Hood and Cullen Jenkins sharing the bulk of the load.
Now undergoing another overhaul of the defensive line, Washington again finds itself looking for a starting nose tackle.
Young players Joey Mbu and A.J. Francis offer intriguing potential. But it’s starting to look like the search could lead the Redskins to a mountain of a man, whose NFL career once appeared very much in doubt.
As training camp has progressed, Phil Taylor has looked more like the guy that the Cleveland Browns drafted 21st overall in 2011, and not the hobbled player that Cleveland, Denver and other teams wrote off after surgery on his right knee in 2014 and a series of recurring injuries to the same knee in 2015 and 2016.
The 6-foot-3, 343-pounder entered camp third on the depth chart, but in the last week-and-a-half he’s climbed to first while displaying great power, quickness and athleticism.
In the trenches, Taylor has emerged as a disruptive force by clogging run lanes and generating good pressure on the quarterback during one-on-one battles, or by taking on double-teams to free up teammates to make play.
On runs or screen passes to the outside, Taylor displays great athleticism as he runs to the ball, keeping pace with linebackers in pursuit of ball carriers.
“Phil is a big cat that can move, and that cannot be moved,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said with a laugh. “He’s doing a really nice job inside. We’ve got a lot of good competition there, and I can’t wait to see us in this first preseason game. But Phil’s doing really well.”
Said defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, “What a story there, huh? … A guy you enjoy being with and his mind-set and the way he’s going about doing this. You telling me Phil Taylor financially has to play football? Don’t you love that? He doesn’t have to play football, so what does that tell you? He’s here for the right reasons. You love that.”
It’s true, Taylor signed a handsome contract as a rookie. He could have easily pursued some other career path after the Browns released him in 2015. But he couldn’t bring himself to give up, not then, and not in 2016 when he got hurt again and was released by Denver.
“Football growing up, it’s a kids game,” Taylor said. “To be able to be paid to play this kids game, and to be able to put smiles on the faces of other kids, who can’t play this game, or who want to be like you when they grow up, it’s awesome. It makes me want to play at a high level. I’ve got a son, who’s almost 2, and I just look at him every day and he keeps me going.”
Taylor continued, “Being away from the game, it sucks, but it makes you realize how much you miss it. I’m just out here doing the necessary things it takes to be ready. I love it.”
Fueled by his love for the game, and the encouragement of his family and agent, Taylor vowed to attempt another comeback. His first step toward recovery involved finding a way to stay in shape while still waiting for his knee to fully heal.
Unable to run during his rehabilitation process, Taylor realized that he had to focus more closely on his diet. He enlisted his father as an accountability partner, and together, they developed improved eating habits and began keeping their weight in check.
“Rehabbing hard, and staying in shape — that’s a big thing when a big guy has an injury where he can’t run,” Taylor said. “You have to eat right, not just because of football, but health down the line. My dad, he’s a bigger guy and has some health issues from being a bigger guy, and I just don’t want to be like that when I’m older. Now, we do things together. I’m eating right and getting him to eat right. It’s a team effort. If you’ve got somebody doing it with you, it helps.”
In 2016, Taylor had a few tryouts, including one with Washington several weeks into the season. But he didn’t receive a contract offer until January, when Washington signed him to a futures deal (one-year, non-guaranteed contract).
Signing with Washington fulfilled a boyhood dream for the Clinton, Md., native, who grew up cheering for the Redskins. But Taylor knew the deal in January was just another step in the process. He then had to further improve his conditioning. Tomsula and Washington’s trainers ran the defensive linemen more this offseason than any team Taylor had ever seen. But that helped him get into shape faster.
Taylor also used offseason practices to knock off the rust built up from not playing a regular season game since 2014.
“The football skills, you don’t ever really lose them,” Taylor said. “That just comes with being a football player. … It’s just getting the cobwebs out.”
Taylor has apparently taken care of the cobwebs and now looks like one of Washington’s top defensive linemen. It’s expected that he will start on Thursday at Baltimore, and in that game, he hopes to further prove his capabilities to coaches and team officials.
Taylor has avoided making any bold predictions of what kind of season he can have now that he’s finally healthy again. He believes it’s far too early for predictions, or to feel like he has arrived.
“I’m just doing what I have to do for the team,” Taylor said. “I haven’t done anything yet, haven’t made the team yet. I’m just taking it day by day and trying to get better as I go.”