SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Taylor Mays’ transition into the starting lineup didn’t exactly go as planned with the San Francisco 49ers, but now that he’s there the rookie is preparing for a long stay in the team’s secondary.
Mays, who didn’t play a defensive snap in San Francisco’s first three games, was thrown into the lineup last week after veteran starter Michael Lewis abruptly left the team two days before its game at Atlanta. Mays leapfrogged veteran Reggie Smith on the depth chart to get the starting call in place of Lewis at strong safety.
He didn’t disappoint.
Mays held up well in coverage and led the 49ers with 11 tackles, the most in a game by a San Francisco player this season. He also made his mark on special teams, becoming the first 49ers player in 23 years to recover a blocked punt for a touchdown. Mays tiptoed the line in the back of the end zone to make that play, giving San Francisco an early 14-0 lead in a game it eventually lost 16-14.
“With Taylor, he’s matured the last couple of weeks, so we wanted to test the market and see how he’d do,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said Thursday. “He did quite well. I was proud and pleased with his performance.”
The 49ers weren’t expecting to ask for that performance so soon. San Francisco wanted to give its second-round draft pick more time to adjust to coverage responsibilities at the NFL level, since Mays often lined up 20 yards off the ball during his college career at USC.
But after an 0-3 start, the 49ers decided it was time to accelerate Mays’ learning curve.
Coaches planned to gradually work Mays onto the field, asking Lewis last week to help mentor Mays. That did not sit well with Lewis, who promptly asked for his release and did not make the trip to Atlanta. The 49ers released Lewis — a former Pro Bowler who had started 50 of the team’s previous 51 games at strong safety — on Monday.
“I didn’t think it would happen like how it happened, but you’ve got to roll with it and I just went with it,” Mays said. “It was a trip the way it kind of went down, but at the same time I was still preparing during the week like I was going to play, so it kind of made my transition a little easier.”
It’s a new mentality for Mays this week as the winless 49ers prepare for Sunday night’s game against the visiting Philadelphia Eagles.
The 49ers have given Mays the permanent job next to veteran free safety Dashon Goldson. San Francisco has been looking to upgrade at safety with fresh talent for several years, and that search may now be over.
“It’s very motivating, and it’s a little bit different mindset for me now,” Mays said. “I just need to be consistent and try to get better. I did some things right last week, but I feel I can do a lot more things better. I’m eager to show how much I’ve improved since last week.”
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Mays possesses a unique combination of size and speed. Mays has been timed at 4.3 seconds over 40 yards, and his quickness and athleticism are dimensions that have been lacking in the San Francisco secondary.
Mays lasted into the second round of the NFL draft this year because of questions surrounding his raw skills and coverage ability. He answered several of those concerns when given the opportunity against the Falcons.
Now the 49ers are eager to see what kind of impact he can make the rest of the season.
“Taylor had no mental errors in the game,” 49ers coach Mike Singletary said. “When you’re as big a safety as he is, it was really important for us to see if he could really get into the box and cover, do some of the things that the smaller, quicker-twitch safeties can do. And he can indeed do that.
“He knew exactly where he needed to be, played his position well and brought value to our team. He’s continued to blossom since he’s been here, and I think he’s going to be a tremendous asset going forward.”