UNC's Taylor creates his own NFL opportunity

Staff WriterMay 12, 2011 

— Ryan Taylor entered his senior season at North Carolina with more tackles than catches, more position changes than touchdowns and more surgeries than starts.

As far as NFL résumés go, even after some breakout performances at the end of Taylor's final season with the Tar Heels, the versatile tight end did not exactly scream, "I'm the next Jason Witten!"

But when the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers made the 218th pick in the draft on April 30, they called Taylor's name, even after spending a fifth-round pick on another tight end.

"You can never quite tell what's going to happen," Taylor said.

In the constellation of NFL prospects and eventual draft picks dotted all over UNC's depth chart before the 2010 season started, Taylor was the least conspicuous.

He missed the 2009 season with a knee injury. In the three years before that, he was a special-teams staple but never caught a pass or started a game, on offense or defense, where he briefly moved during the 2008 season.

Still, NFL teams took notice of Taylor's "get in where you fit in" attitude. He was an up-back on the kick-return team, a wedge-breaker on kickoffs, a guard on the punt team and a blocker on the field-goal unit.

Despite starting just five games in 2010, he set the school record for catches by a tight end, with 36.

"You're always looking at versatility," Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson said after the draft. "That's one of the qualities we look at in any prospect, regardless of position."

Thompson praised Taylor for being articulate and driven, the latter in appreciation for Taylor's route to the NFL.

"He took a different path than everyone else," said former UNC quarterback T.J. Yates, who has lived with Taylor for the better part of the past four years.

A star at Winston-Salem's Mount Tabor High, Taylor had more than 1,000 receiving yards as a high school senior and signed with John Bunting at UNC in 2006. He was one of only four freshmen who played - all of his snaps came on special teams that year - in Bunting's final season. When Butch Davis replaced Bunting a year later, Davis added tight end Zack Pianalto to his first recruiting class. Pianalto and Richard Quinn, a second-round pick in the 2009 draft, pushed Taylor down the depth chart.

Looking for a place

During his junior season, Taylor switched to outside linebacker in the hopes of getting on the field. He just wanted a chance.

"He would never tell us that he was frustrated, but you could tell," his older brother, Scott Taylor, said. "Any time you have the ability, you want to prove it."

With injuries and suspensions making a mess of the preseason depth chart, Taylor got his chance in 2010. He made his first collegiate catch in the season-opening game against LSU and caught his first touchdown two games later at Rutgers.

A tough, physical player, Taylor had been more of an extra blocker than a receiving threat. UNC started using more two tight end sets to accommodate Taylor, Yates said.

"He made his own position," Yates said. "It wasn't until this year that we started using a two-tight-end system."

When Pianalto went down with a broken leg in mid-October, Taylor moved into the traditional "Y" tight end spot in UNC's lineup. In the final three games of the season, he caught 20 passes, including a team-best nine for 85 yards in the Music City Bowl win over Tennessee.

Earning a chance

Despite the strong finish, Taylor was not one of 12 UNC players invited to the NFL combine. He worked out on campus with former strength coach Jeff Connors and prepared for UNC's pro day.

He produced a 4.7-second time in the 40-yard dash and did 21 repetitions on the bench press, respectable numbers for a player with his size (6 feet 3, 254 pounds) and versatility.

Still, a spot in the draft was not a given. He finished an internship with Tar Heel Sports Properties (a natural Plan B considering the communications degree he earned).

He visited five NFL teams, including Green Bay, before the draft, but Taylor still wasn't sure about his status.

"I thought I'd have a shot at free-agent deal," Taylor said. "I'm still not sure the reality of it all has set in."

Of the 254 players drafted, only 13 tight ends went. Green Bay took Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams, who is more of a receiver, in the fifth round. With the first of their two seventh-round picks, they took Taylor.

"It has been a long road, but we got there," Taylor said. "Well, to the front gate anyway."

The Packers already boast one of the NFL's best tight ends, Jermichael Finley.

"Mike likes a lot of tight ends," Thompson said, referring to Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy.

Despite the logjam at the position, Thompson said Williams and Taylor each will have a "good" chance to make the team.

"I think he's very realistic about the whole process," Scott Taylor said. "Getting drafted was the easy part, now the real work begins."

And as Ryan Taylor already learned in college, there's more than one way to get where you want to go.

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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