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Taylor Rapp continues to distance himself from reasons for skepticism

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A deep dive on the Rams young safety with star potential

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Los Angeles Rams Minicamp Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

It’s interesting to consider what the legacy for Chris Petersen at the University of Washington will end up being. After eight years of mystery, intrigue, and success at Boise State that could have seemingly flipped Petersen into an opportunity of his choosing, he ultimately chose the Huskies in 2013, just as he was coming off of his worst campaign as a head coach for the Broncos.

Ultimately, Petersen produced four first round picks out of Boise State — Ryan Clady, Kyle Wilson, Doug Martin, Shea McLellin — and quite a few past that, including Orlando Scandrick and rising coaching star Kellen Moore. Petersen had opportunities for other schools that would make it even easier to recruit four and five-star prospects, including at USC (maybe) and Oregon (maybe), but after all that time he went to a UW program that wasn’t very solid or producing much NFL talent.

To his credit, Petersen did have an impact there. Actually, Petersen’s legacy should get plenty of credit at UW and when he resigned last December, he stayed on with the Huskies in another role. He may still continue to help them produce more NFL talent.

Like that of Taylor Rapp, who believe it or not, was not one of Petersen’s most prized recruits during his time in Seattle as the head coach.

Petersen took over a Huskies program that had gone 9-4 and saw head coach Steve Sarkisian bolt for the Trojans ahead of their Fight Hunger Bowl appearance that year. From 1996 to 2013, the University of Washington produced only four first round picks — Jerramy Stevens, Reggie Williams, Jake Locker, and Desmond Trufant — and some good picks after like Corey Dillon, Olin Kreutz, Dashon Goldson, and Marcel Reece — but this was far from the team that had won a split national championship in 1991 under Don James.

The James’ Huskies were regularly getting their players drafted. The Jim Lambright/Rick Neuheisel/Keith Gilbertson/Tyrone Willingham/Steve Sarkisian Huskies, not so much. Petersen changed plenty during his six seasons at the helm.

Petersen’s first class in 2014 included future first round pick Kaleb McGary, plus second round picks Budda Baker. Sidney Jones, and Dante Pettis. There was also Greg Gaines, who the LA Rams traded up for in 2019, and Will Dissly, a really productive tight end for the Seattle Seahawks when he’d been healthy. The 2015 class has thus far included fewer future stars than 2014, but then in 2016, Petersen landed seven four-star recruits — more than his first two years combined.

Among those was future second round pick Byron Murphy. but Petersen’s best NFL prospect to this point from that class was not even a four-star guy.

High School

It was Rapp, a 5’11, 197 pound DB out of Bellingham, Washington, a town of 90,000 people on the outskirts of Canada and about 90 minutes north of Seattle.

While most high school football stars seem to play for high schools that feature football stars, and therefore win games, such wasn’t the case for Rapp at Sehome. During a junior and senior, his team won a total of five games, which is fewer than the number of state championships for the Sehome cross country team had won over their previous six seasons: Six.

It is of course hard to get noticed out of Bellingham then. Few came prior to Rapp, but one of those players was Locker. Said Washington’s Jimmy Lake, now the head coach, “I don’t get up there much.” Rapp was clearly the best player on Sehome’s team, but is that saying much? Baker Mayfield may be the best quarterback the Cleveland Browns have had in 50 years. Is that saying much?

Sehome’s athletic director Colin Cushman described Rapp as such:

“While at Sehome, Taylor was highly regarded as a quiet, humble, hard-working student athlete that was well liked by his classmates, teachers and coaches,” Cushman told The Herald. “The Sehome community is really excited for Taylor to see where he lands and what the future holds for him.”

As a senior, Rapp had 117 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, three interceptions, and four forced fumbles. I’m not sure what good high school stats would be in general, but they seem especially difficult to parse out coming from such a bad football program. Especially for a safety who was asked to do just about everything he could for the team as the team’s best player.

Rivals ranked Rapp as the 51st best safety in the country and the seventh best overall recruit out of Washington. Among the safeties ranked ahead of him were the Patriots’ JoeJuan Williams (10) and the recently-clamored for Isaiah Simmons (32) who is now a member of the Cardinals. He was even ranked behind Joshua Perry (48), who was recently drafted by the LA Chargers ... as a running back.

The most notable in-state player above him was quarterback Jacob Eason.

Scout was kinder, placing Rapp at 27 for safeties, two behind Simmons. He just snuck into the top 500 too ... 471. But how was Rapp even getting noticed at all as the best player on a bad team that’s tucked so far in the American corner that it’s almost as if Bellingham is trying to reach out and kiss Alaska? With a little help from his brother Austin Rapp and other connections that can erupt from this small town of 90,000 people that favors running over rushing.

Despite dominating at the state’s 2A level, Rapp drew very little interest from even the smallest D-I schools. Frustrated, the family tried every avenue to get him exposed. By chance, Austin knew a kid he grew up with who was working in UW’s football office cutting up recruiting tape for coaches.

“He was kind of feeding into the coaches, saying, ‘Hey, there’s this kid in Bellingham you have to see,’ “ Austin said. Taylor’s athleticism, despite the lesser level of competition, jumped off the film, leading to a last-second invite to UW’s high school camp just a few months before he was to start his junior season at Sehome.

Shortly after attending camps at USC and UCLA, Rapp blew the doors off the UW camp, so much so that the three-star recruit had an offer in hand from the Huskies by October. Soon after, other programs — Stanford, Oregon and Notre Dame, among others — jumped into the fray, wanting to sign Rapp, sight unseen, based solely on UW’s scholarship extension. But they had no chance against the school Taylor had dreamed of playing for since he was a kid.

“The first time I saw him (play football) in person was down here,” Lake said, referring to Sehome’s 2012 season opener, which was played in Husky Stadium. “He played quarterback, running back, receiver, defensive end, linebacker and safety. I think he even punted the ball.” Lake then added something with unintended irony: “That (Sehome) coach was smart. Why wouldn’t you put your best player all over the field?”

Once he was seen, he was seen, and I imagine that recruiting sites like Rivals and Scout simply cannot catch up when you’ve already got 1000s of potential stars at the next level to monitor. I did manage to still find some of his senior highlights thanks to Hudl:

(Junior season highlights here)

With at least 10 offers to choose from, Rapp committed to Petersen, Lake, and the Huskies, as the program continued its objective of pumping more NFL talent into the team and hoping for the best. He wasn’t the star recruit of 2016.

Not yet. As you probably know, the real star recruits are often not the ones with the most stars remaining on their recruiting page once the dust has settled. Rapp chose UW over Pac-12 schools ASU, Colorado, Stanford, and Washington State, as well as Nebraska and ... Boise State.

With more attention on him now, Rapp ended up USA Today all-state first team, AP 2A all-state first team, and was invited to play in the US Army All-American Bowl, but opted to skip it so that he could enroll early with the Huskies to prepare for his freshman season. That seemed to pay off.

College

In his first two seasons with the Huskies, Petersen’s Dawgs weren’t very exceptional. They went 8-6 in year one and 7-6 in year two, basically repeating the lack of premier success exhibited by Sarkisian for five seasons. But with the freshman Rapp, as well as some other lauded recruits such as Baker, Pettis, John Ross, Jake Browning, Trey Adams, Vita Vea, and Myles Gaskin, the team proved to become the very thing that other colleges feared if Petersen ever went to a program that could lure the best to him: a threat for the national title.

Ranking 14th headed into the season — their best pre-season ranking since 2002 — the Huskies started 9-0, including a 44-6 win over seventh-ranked Stanford and a 31-24 win on the road over 17th-ranked Utah. Now ranked fourth and facing an unranked USC team now coached by Clay Helton (Sarkisian fired the year before) in Week 11 however, they folded. The Trojans won 26-13 and there were few individual victories to come out of that loss.

Among them: true freshman Taylor Rapp picked off Sam Darnold, the future third overall pick in the draft, twice.

Those were the first career college interceptions for Rapp, but he was having himself a season. He would later pick off Colorado’s Sefo Liufau twice in the Pac-12 championship game (on back-to-back throws, one for a touchdown), sending UW to the College Football Playoffs for the first time and setting up a match against every college’s recruiting nightmare in Nick Saban and Alabama.

For the Huskies, this was nothing more than an inevitable loss (24-7), but for Rapp and several other future pros, it was an opportunity to showcase your talents against professional talents.

Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts went 7-of-14 for 57 yards that day, the worst passing performance he’d have until a year later in the national championship against Georgia. Surely, Rapp had something to do with that.

Rapp’s first season with the Huskies can be wrapped up here:

Rapp was named a True Freshman All-American by USAToday, the PFF Freshman All-American Team, and he was the Pac-12’s Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.

He played at a high school with maybe no other college football talent at all, but then in a secondary with Baker, Kevin King, Sidney Jones, Rapp managed to stand out. As for Petersen, his Huskies posted the first 12-win season for the program since ‘91 under James. They finished ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2000.

Though Murphy returned from an injury in 2018, Baker, Jones, and King all went into the league. That left Rapp as a veteran leader in the secondary less than two years after he had graduated from Sehome. UW opened the season ranked eighth and got as high as fifth when they were 6-0 and headed into a game versus Arizona State, but losses to those Sun Devils and soon after the Stanford Cardinal, kept the Huskies from thinking of a repeat trip to the CFP.

But Rapp remained a steady force.

In 2017, Rapp posted 59 tackles, two sackes, 3.5 TFL, and one interception. He was named to the first-team All-Pac-12 team and was on the Academic All-Pac-12 first-team as well. Washington’s already stout defense went from 17.7 points per game allowed to 16.1 per game allowed.

Keep in mind that Rapp was only two years removed from being a recruit with plenty of skeptics. Even after he got attention for committing to the Huskies out of Bellingham, he was not playing great competition because he was coming out of Bellingham. Teammate Myles Gaskin watched his high school film and thought “this dude can’t play,” and noted that others on the team felt the same. It was immediately evident that Rapp could play and two years into his college experience, it was obvious that this was one of Petersen’s best recruits.

With high expectations for Rapp’s junior season, the Huskies opened the season ranked sixth and lost to ninth-ranked Auburn, 21-16. Skipping to the end, they lost in the Rose Bowl and the defense was again one of the best in the nation. Rapp finished with 58 tackles, five TFL, four sacks, two interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and four passes defensed. He was a first-team All-American with ESPN, USA Today, PFF, and second-team with AP and some others.

Draft

With nothing left to prove and plenty left to lose, it took just three years for Rapp to go from Bellingham to the NFL. He is the first player from Sehome to ever make the league.

Early signs were pointing towards Rapp as a first round pick, but the major question looming after the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine was “What would his 40-yard dash time be?” after he held off on running it until his pro day. Rapp was 6’, 208 pounds, and posted an average vertical with a poor broad jump. But he did finish third among safeties in 3-cone and first in the short shuttle. Not insignificant.

Especially when you consider the questions about his speed that would come up after his pro day, when he ran a 4.76 in the 40-yard dash. Only three safeties ran worse than a 4.76 at the combine and none of the nine safeties who ran a 4.56 or slower were drafted. On the contrary, a player named Zedrick Woods ran a 4.29 and didn’t even get drafted, which sort of makes you wonder why they even invited Zedrick Woods to begin with. (To run a 40, I imagine.)

Rapp was one of the best safeties in the draft but at his pro day, records seemed to indicate that he was also one of the slowest.

Rapp said he was a “football player” and “not a 40-yard dash specialist.”

Anybody can go talk to the trainers out there, and they’ll tell you the same thing,” Rapp said. “And then even after the combine, pre-pro day, I was tracking 4.5, the slowest was low 4.6s. I don’t know. It is what it is, I ran what I ran. There’s nothing I can do about it now.

“I’m never one to make an excuse, but I’ll just say turn on the tape and the tape speaks for itself. I play fast, I’m never out of position. I’m always making tackles, never missing a tackle, never getting beat, never out of position. So I would just say look at the tape … I think that’s all that matters.”

Former Huskies QB Brock Huard speculated that Rapp added muscle and that slowed him down as well. Rapp ran a 4.57 one year earlier. I really don’t believe the 4.77 was the real number you were getting with Rapp.

On the tape, the marks were unsurprisingly really good.

Scouting Profile from S&BP

Strengths

Rapp is incredibly versatile and has a good feel for the game, filled in multiple roles for Washington’s defense as a three-year starter. Extremely high football IQ, plays smart and fast. Excels in run support, not afraid to lay the wood and hit with authority. Adept at covering tight ends, but lacks the range to be a ‘center fielder.’ Much more likely to succeed in the box or as an enforcer in two high sets. Could become a solid blitz option in the NFL.

Weaknesses

As mentioned, lacks top tier range for the position, not going to excel if put in one high safety looks. Relies on his intelligence to make up for some gaps in his athleticism and speed. Leaves a bit to be desired in terms of ball skills, as shown by his lack of interceptions.

Verdict

Rapp is not going to be a ball-hawk that ranges sideline to sideline to break up passes, but he will be great in run support and as an enforcer on the second level. His intelligence and understanding of the game allow him to make plays that others can’t, and that will entice many teams. Will have a great chance at becoming a starter in the NFL. Good character and clean injury history to boot, Rapp is an intriguing prospect for teams needing a strong safety.

Pro Comparison

Tony Jefferson

Jefferson came out of Oklahoma in 2013 as a 5’11, 213 pound free safety who ran a 4.75 at the combine. He went undrafted and has had a solid seven-year career with the Cardinals and Ravens.

UW Dawg Pound’s assessment was that Rapp may fit best as a strong safety, but that he could be a pretty good one.

The good news is that most analysts agree that Rapp can be very good at that job, even if it’s more specialized than the one he did at Washington. Everyone agrees that Rapp is an outstanding tackler and has great instincts and intelligence for the position. Those instincts might help Husky fans reconcile Rapp’s speed deficiency with the fact that he was involved in plays all over the field throughout his college career. Another point in Rapp’s favor has been his durability. In spite of his physical style of play, he started 13 or 14 games in every year of his Husky career. For someone who lays the wood that Rapp does with only average size, that ability to avoid major injuries distinguishes him from his peers.

But Rapp’s “draft outlook” even after his 4.77 was in the late first or early second round. Maybe Myles Gaskin syndrome struck again.

Two safeties went in round one (Darnell Savage at 21, Johnathan Abram at 27), and the Seahawks chose Marquise Blair at 47 instead of the local safety. Rapp was still on the board near the end of the second round and after the LA Chargers took safety Nasir Adderley at pick 60, the other LA team took Rapp at 61.

At least now the wait was over. And in addition to being the first Sehome player in the NFL and one of the few from Whatcom County, Rapp was also now added to a short list of Asian-Americans in the league, as his mother is from Shanghai, China, and his father is Canadian. It’s a point of pride for Rapp and something he hopes inspires others.

“Oh, yeah. All over social media and stuff. I’ve had little Asian boys, their parents actually reaching out saying how much of an inspiration I am to them. It’s my whole goal. It’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what keeps me going.”

It’s a message that Rapp has reiterated in other media interviews, telling ESPN earlier in preseason that he hopes to make a difference.

“I’m trying to change the narrative,” Rapp said. “Show that Asians can play and try to inspire young kids.”

He speaks more on that aspect of his life in the first episode of Un-Rapp’d, a series on the LA Rams YouTube channel:

“Taylor, my little brother, potentially being the leader of the changing of the stigma of Asian-Americans in football, what he can accomplish is so much greater than what we could have imagined,” says Austin Rapp in the video. “To see him embrace it and want to do it speaks a ton to him, to be an older brother and see him grow up that way is pretty special.”

Rapp came into the NFL wanting to “prove Asians can play” which meant that he had to play. Well.

LA Rams

With veteran Eric Weddle signed to play free safety and the also young John Johnson starting at strong safety, Rapp seemed set to play a backup role as a rookie. The Rams also had solid veteran depth at cornerback that included Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, and Nickell Robey-Coleman. How quickly things change. Sean McVay saw Rapp’s rookie role as being an opportunity to sit and learn and that packages that called for him would be coming.

“I think to be able to get him in a group where you’re playing and you’re learning behind those two guys, and then based on personnel groupings that we want to activate defensively — when you’ve got three players that have a versatile skillset you can really put yourself in an advantage situation defensively with guys that can do a lot of different things, and some of the disguises, and different amount of coverages that you can activate, or all these guys have the ability to blitz as well,” McVay said. “So, we feel like he fits really well with some of the things that we’re looking for.”

It didn’t take long to see that with or without Weddle and Johnson, Rapp would be an integral part of the defense. Rapp’s versatility to play at the line of scrimmage and to stop the run certainly helped in that area.

In his preseason debut, Rapp made a nice play on receiver Hunter Renfrow to break up a pass. McVay was instantly impressed.

“I just think the instincts and the awareness (were what jumped out at me),” Rams coach Sean McVay said Sunday. “You could just see how fast he’s playing, his ability to negotiate those traffic situations.”

The former Washington standout finished the game playing 30 percent of Los Angeles’ defensive snaps and also saw five snaps on special teams.

Rapp admitted he was anxious going into his first NFL game, but those feelings subsided once he made that first tackle.

“I haven’t tackled someone since last December, so I was a little nervous about the first tackle, going out there,” Rapp said. “It was fun to get out there and go full go, all the way to the ground.”

Talib was also happy with what he had seen from the rookie in his first offseason.

“He’s learning, definitely learning. A lot being thrown at him, he’s learning strong safety, dime, free safety, so it’s a lot on his plate and he’s picking it up fast,” Talib said.

It would take an injury to Johnson for Rapp to get his first start in the sixth game of the season, but he was already playing often up to that point.

Rapp played in 31 snaps on defense and 16 snaps on special teams in Week 1, a 30-27 win over the Carolina Panthers, and he finished with seven tackles. The following week, he had six tackles over 40 snaps on defense and 15 on special teams, plus his first pass breakup in a 27-9 win over the New Orleans Saints. Rapp would play in 58 special teams snaps over those first five games, but after he was called to the defense, he played in only three more snaps on that side of the ball over the rest of the season.

In five games as a “reserve” Rapp had 11 solo tackles, 14 assisted tackles, and two passes defensed. The Rams had opened 3-0, but were 3-2 when Johnson got injured. That included giving up 55 points to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an ugly stain on a brilliant career for Wade Phillips.

When Johnson was placed on injured reserve with a should injury, Rapp was called into start next to a potential future Hall of Famer in Weddle. In Rapp’s first four career starts, he registered 27 solo tackles, eight assists, three tackles for a loss, and two passes defensed. He became an instant success in wrapping up and showcasing his abilities and the defense allowed a total of 44 points in those four games. The Rams went 3-1 in those starts.

Those defensive celebrations came to a quick halt with a 45-6 loss to the top-ranked offensive of the Baltimore Ravens, but he came up with perhaps his best rookie highlight in Week 13.

Playing in a divisional matchup against the Arizona Cardinals and facing off against Kyler Murray, not only a fellow rookie and the top overall pick but another NFL Asian-American (Murray’s grandmother is from South Korea), Rapp seized an opportunity to punctuate his first year highlight film. Maybe something for Austin to sneak into Brandon Staley’s library for next season.

Less than two minutes into the second half, with the Rams leading 20-0, Rapp intercepted Murray at his own 47 and returned it 11 yards. The first interception of his career! Unfortunately, Robey-Coleman was called for pass interference and the play was wiped off the box score. The Cards punted four plays later.

After a Jared Goff-to-Cooper Kupp touchdown made it 27-0, Arizona got the ball back and was looking to get on the board for the first time. Instead, Rapp got on the board for the first time, intercepting Murray again and this time returning it 31 yards for a touchdown to make it 34-0.

The intended receiver: Larry Fitzgerald.

Rapp would add one more interception on the season, and it was again off of Murray, and also on a pass intended for Fitzgerald. His pick helped set up another Goff touchdown and gave LA a much needed 14-point cushion at the time.

Not all was perfect. Rapp took blame for a critical play against the San Francisco 49ers in a 34-31 loss that knocked LA out of the playoff race.

“I played my technique trusting that he (Rapp) was going to be over the top. He wasn’t,” Ramsey told reporters. “That’s what happened.”

He finished his first NFL season with 100 tackles, two interceptions, and eight passes defensed over 15 games (missing one with an ankle injury). He became the 22nd rookie defensive back to officially record at least 100 tackles, joining players like Harrison Smith, Keanu Neal, Landon Collins, Steve Atwater, Donte Whitner, Derwin James, and T.J. Ward.

His stats including tackles, interceptions, and playing near the line for TFL and sacks could be described similarly to that of Madieu Williams, a former 56th overall pick of the Cincinnati Bengals who enjoyed a nine-year career at free safety. (Also, Mark Carrier had 122 tackles, 10 interceptions, and five forced fumbles as a rookie with the Bears? Jesus Christ.)

Next

With the retirement of Weddle, there’s nothing left between Rapp and the rest of his career as a starting defensive back for the Rams. As you would have guessed, Rapp was drafted with the intention for him to replace Weddle in 2020 and that’s how it is going to work out. The fact that he’s already started 10 games and played well is an unplanned bonus.

But the drafting of another day two safety in 2020 — Terrell Burgess, 104th overall — makes for another player who can play the “Rapp role” as depth and playmaker in his rookie campaign. Burgess may also get onto the field as a slot corner and LA also drafted safety Jordan Fuller in the sixth. With John Johnson set to hit free agency in 2021, the look ahead may be to have a different starter next to Rapp by next season.

But Rapp should start at safety for the Rams in each of the next three years, at least. There seems to be no reason on his resume to believe that he’s not capable of that. Can Rapp become a “great” safety though? I think it depends on the definition of great but in my mind that only requires that a player be considered at that “greatness” level for one season. From a statistical point of view, if Rapp can build a career like Landon Collins — guaranteed to make a lot of tackles but only had one season (his second) where he made notable contributions in turnovers and sacks — has so far, then I think many would say that’s great.

If he is more lowkey, like Madieu Williams, that’s pretty valuable too. Especially for a late second round pick out of Bellingham.

To bring it full circle, I want to remind you of those Washington Huskies draft picks stats from 37,000 words ago: from 1996 to 2013 there were four first round picks and 10 second round picks.

Since 2014, the Huskies have produced six first round picks and nine second round picks. With respect to Budda Baker, Marcus Peters, and Cory Littleton, Rapp’s been one of the absolute best of those already and it has only been one season. In comparison to where Peters (18th) and Baker (36th) were drafted, Rapp’s also been an exceptional value. There are always bound to be diamonds somewhere in the rough.

And sometimes near Canada.