Polamalu comparisons could lift USC’s Mays

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LOS ANGELES – The rock star ambience was absent. There were no impromptu meetings between NFL power brokers between drills, and most of the big-name agents were nowhere to be found. Even the sunshine struggled to make an appearance, stifled by endless clouds hanging overhead.

Pro day at the University of Southern California is usually a Mardi Gras of talent, but Wednesday’s festival was more of a one-float parade: safety Taylor Mays … and everyone else. Undoubtedly, it was a far cry from the orgy of talent in the 2008 and 2009 drafts, in which the Trojans produced 12 players who were plucked in the top two rounds (seven in the first, five in the second). That’s not to say USC has lost all that much juice. Wednesday’s event still drew more than 40 coaches, scouts and executives, including Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox and Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson.

Two interceptions in three seasons have raised concerns about USC safety Taylor Mays.
(US Presswire)

But for most on hand, it was largely an affair for locking in the middle and late sections of draft boards, with the bulk of USC’s draftable talent – as many as five or six players – expected to go after the first two rounds. Nevertheless, three NFL sources said Mays was a lock to go in the top 32 picks, making him the 15th first-round pick to come out of the recruiting classes of former coach Pete Carroll. And the Trojans might squeak in one more, too, with evaluators suggesting that offensive tackle Charles Brown has a chance to sneak into the first round, depending on when the run on offensive linemen occurs.

Yet it’s Mays who has been the most intriguing storyline in recent days, as griping began over his ball skills (the ability to track a ball in the air and make a play on it) and whether he’s a more physical workout freak than football player. Thought to be a top 10 pick had he entered the 2009 draft, Mays’ stock dropped last season, when he produced only one interception – giving him two in his final three seasons at USC – and evaluators questioned whether he had elite ball skills. Then came the scouting combine, when a timing error erased what was believed to be a jaw-dropping 4.31 second 40-yard dash … numbers that were unheard of for a 6-foot-3, 230-pound safety.

“He’s a first-round pick,” said one evaluator Wednesday. “I think he’s going to be a very good NFL player, too.”

Asked to identify some of Mays’ warts, another evaluator said: “He’s got great, great measurables, but the production doesn’t match up with it. He’s not a great face-up tackler. You don’t see the speed on tape all the time – you see glimpses, but it’s not consistently there. But all of that said, he’s going to be a first-round pick. I called [an AFC executive] who watched him at the Senior Bowl, and he thought [Mays] had a great week.”

Mays isn’t the first USC safety to hear some last-second nitpicking. Former Trojan Troy Polamalu(notes) heard it too, when some evaluators questioned whether his instincts were good enough to get the job done consistently in the NFL. Five Pro Bowls and two Super Bowl rings later with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the world has long forgotten any of the knocks that were whispered heading into the 2003 draft.

“Polamalu had one interception his senior year at USC, and that was in a Pete Carroll defense,” said Mays’ agent, Gary Wichard. “But you put him with the Steelers and [defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau, and look at what he was able to do.”

Polamalu, pictured in 2002 as a Trojan, was the 16th overall pick in the NFL draft the following year.
(Getty Images)

And as one NFL source in attendance pointed out Wednesday, “Mays wasn’t expected to get a lot of interceptions where they put him in that defense. He played the deep routes a lot. He was expected to keep the big plays from happening. And for the most part, that’s what he did.”

His ability to do more than tackle and hit has definitely been one of the sore spots for Mays since USC’s season ended. When he was coached at the Senior Bowl by the Miami Dolphins staff, he was taken far out of his comfort zone and thrust into situations where he had to line up on tight ends and handle more one-on-one coverage. It led to some mixed reviews, but Miami’s coach saw progress along the way, including an interception by Mays in the Senior Bowl. And since that week, he has spent the lions’ share of his time working on his ball skills and some of the agility that helps safeties make impact plays.

“In the NFL, you get paid to get interceptions,” Mays said. “I started trying to do that [at the Senior Bowl]. I dropped a pass in practice, and then I caught an interception in the game. It kind of started to pay off once I started to look for the ball. … I know I can do it. I wasn’t really coached just to do that at USC, but I know I can make that transition in the NFL.”

He didn’t run a 40-yard dash at Wednesday’s pro day, but went through a handful of agility and positional drills to show he could adapt to coaching and what would be needed on the next level.

“Showing I could backpedal, showing I could change direction, showing I’ve got ball skills, and could track the ball in the air and go up and catch it – that’s what I wanted to show,” Mays said. “That’s why these [defensive back] drills I thought were the most important thing for me.”

Time will tell if it translates into Polamalu-like success. But at least one thing was clear from executives on hand: like the other coveted USC safety, the late hand-wringing isn’t expected to translate into much of a draft day slide.

Charles Robinson is the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Charles a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Mar 31, 2010