Taylor Mays’ NFL stock has plunged, but he hopes to rally

Start with a picture on the cover of the 2009 USC media guide. It shows Taylor Mays charging down the field, shoulders at a forward tilt, as if poised to lower the boom on an unsuspecting receiver.

That fall, Mays was a two-time All-American safety who had passed up a choice spot in the NFL draft to return for his senior season. His future appeared limitless.

Now fast-forward to this week, to a young man who arrived at the Cincinnati Bengals’ training camp fighting for his NFL life.

“This might be, hopefully, a better situation for me,” he told reporters. “We’ll see how it works out.”

His new boss was quick to stick up for him.

“I don’t know if this guy is recycled,” Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis said. “It’s been one year.”


But in one year, Mays has fallen from college star to second-round selection to afterthought, the San Francisco 49ers trading him away for a reported late-round draft pick.

His father, Stafford, a former NFL player, said: “It’s been hard on him, definitely … he’s been a lightning rod for criticism.”

The NFL draft is anything but an exact science. Some high draft picks simply don’t have what it takes to play professionally, while others end up in a system or scheme that does not suit their talents.

The Buffalo Bills gave up on Aaron Maybin, a 2009 first-rounder out of Penn State who was supposed to boost their pass rush but failed to record a sack.

Call him a draft-day bust, a category into which Mays now falls too. It is a radical change from his days with the Trojans, when Pete Carroll called him “one of the most gifted safeties ever to play at USC,” putting Mays in the company of his boyhood idol, Ronnie Lott.

His physical attributes were impressive — 6 feet 3, 230 pounds, a blistering time in the 40-yard dash. But then he intercepted only one pass as a senior, giving him five in three seasons.

People questioned his skills as a playmaker, whispers that grew louder when Carroll jumped to the Seattle Seahawks and skipped Mays in the draft, choosing Earl Thomas of Texas, who had eight interceptions as a senior.

“Yeah, I love Taylor Mays and everything he stands for,” Carroll said at the time. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”

An angry Mays lashed back about “some things that he told me I needed to do as a football player, versus the actions that he took and who he took as safety. I understand it’s a business, but with it being a business, you just need to be honest, and that’s all I was asking for.”

Slipping to the 49th spot in the draft, the rookie reported to San Francisco hungry to prove himself. Coach Mike Singletary praised his work ethic and desire to learn.

For a while, his extra effort paid off.

Mays cracked the starting lineup in the fourth week of the 2010 season and led the team with 11 tackles at Atlanta. He followed up with solid numbers against Carolina and Denver.

But questions about his skills lingered.

“He isn’t a natural football player,” said an NFL scout who spoke on condition of anonymity because his team does not authorize him to make public comments. “He lacks ability in man coverage, and his instincts and awareness are average.”

San Francisco demoted him after six starts, things going quickly downhill. Mays played sparingly in the second half of the season, recording two tackles.

“It was tough at first,” he said. “I didn’t let it affect my confidence. I like to say I feel pretty confident.”

The 49ers fired Singletary last December and Mays’ situation grew more tenuous amid reports that General Manager Trent Baalke was not a fan. Enter a new coach, Jim Harbaugh, who knew about Mays from his previous job at Stanford.

The incoming regime made its intentions clear as training camp opened, sending an email across the league, announcing that Mays was available for trade.

“The old coach probably pushed for [Mays] and Harbaugh didn’t want him,” said another NFL scout, also speaking anonymously. “Harbaugh schemed against him in college and hates USC, and it might be that more than his skill set.”

San Francisco’s defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, confirmed Mays’ status as persona non grata during a training camp news conference.

“We feel like we’ve got five safeties that can play in the NFL,” he said, rattling off five names, none of them Mays.

Stafford Mays recalled that it was “an awful time, because I know Taylor’s work ethic and I know who he is. Of course there were sleepless nights.”

The Chicago Bears showed interest, with the suggestion they might shift Mays to linebacker. His size and speed also made him a candidate for special teams.

But the deal fell through and other suitors seemed hesitant, knowing they might get Mays for free if San Francisco released him. The Bengals — who had bid for free agent Donte Whitner but lost him to the 49ers — made a move.

“He’s somebody that, coming out of the draft, we had done extensive work on and with,” Lewis said of Mays. “We really felt he was a good prospect.”

Mays has landed among friends. Former USC linebackers Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers play for the Bengals, as do former 49ers Nate Clements and Manny Lawson.

“I’m walking into the locker room and they welcomed me with open arms,” Mays said. “It makes the social part easier and then the football part comes with that.”

Just as important, Mays has joined a team on which defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and secondary coach Kevin Coyle are known for reviving careers. Stafford Mays hopes they will be patient and put his son in situations that suit his strengths.

Speaking to reporters, Lewis seemed to agree.

“That’s the thing,” the coach said. “You either change the peg or you’d better get a peg that fits the hole.”

If nothing else, rough times seem to have taught Mays a thing or two about life as a pro. No angry words marked his departure from San Francisco.

The former USC star spoke only of getting down to work and earning a place on his new team.

“It’s the NFL and sometimes different situations work out for the better,” he said. “It’s nothing personal.”

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.