INDIANAPOLIS — The city of Baltimore shaped Charles Tapper. He wasn't in gangs, wasn't into drugs, but he was in the street. Everybody was.
Now, on to the NFL, the defensive end plans on being another beam of hope for thousands back home.
“It’s one of the toughest cities to grow up in," Tapper said. "You have to be very tough-minded. Coming out of Baltimore is like winning the lottery for a lot of us. You don’t see too many kids or anything coming out of Baltimore. It’s like a rose in the concrete almost."
Possibly this rose intrigues the Buffalo Bills, too. Tapper met with the team in Indianapolis and then proceeded to have arguably the best workout of any defensive end.
Tapper ran the 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds, posted a 34-inch vertical and looked fluid through all position drills. And he did it at 6 foot 3, 271 pounds with 34 3/8-inch arms and 11 1/2-inch hands. His 40 was first amongst all defensive linemen and faster than 11 wide receivers and 12 running backs. His production ran hot and cold with the Sooners, though he finished with a bang last season — Tapper had seven sacks in one four-game span. Scouts believe he has the frame to be a 3-4 end or linebacker and, at least in Indy, he flashed the athleticism to drop into coverage, too.
Most importantly, dropping is something he actually wants to do. The 15-minute meeting with the Bills went well.
"I can go inside, play that 3 technique," Tapper said. "I can also go outside and play linebacker. So they’re like, ‘You do so much but we don’t want to label you a ‘tweener. We want to find out what’s your position. We know you’re like a piece of mold. Where would you want to fit at?’ I said, ‘Five technique.’ And they said, ‘Then that’s what you need to work on when you get back.’”
When he's told that Mario Williams was not happy about dropping into coverage, Tapper cuts in.
"I would love to drop into coverage," he said. "Yeah, I’d love to show people how athletic I am. Who wouldn’t want to catch a couple picks in their career? You get opportunities to score touchdowns! ... I definitely love to show how versatile I am. When you want to be the greatest you have to be great at a bunch of different things. Look at J.J. Watt. He’s good at the whole defensive line and linebacker and he can play tight end. I want to be one of the greatest, too, so I have to show my versatility.”
Last season, Tapper finished with 50 tackles (1o for loss) and four forced fumbles in addition to those seven sacks. He said he played a true two-gap scheme in Oklahoma and "didn't get to be an athlete" while often "catching blocks." He'd love to play in attacking defense that utilizes personnel in creative ways.
Rushing. Dropping. Shooting gaps inside.
Speaking to defensive line coach Karl Dunbar and the Bills' staff, he got the sense he could be such a force in Buffalo's scheme.
"The sky’s the limit for me," he said.
He's been through a lot, too. Growing up, Tapper called himself an "undecided" kid. He was still hanging out in the street, playing basketball, eating horrible and "doing little dumb things." His grandmother passed away from breast cancer when he was a junior in high school. And at age 18, he connected with "Next Level Nation" in Baltimore, a youth sports program he said changed his life.
Tapper realized he could get to college, could pursue a new life. He did. And then, once he got to Oklahoma, Tapper discovered he had Sickle cell trait. He's able to monitor symptoms by staying in top shape, joking it gives him a reason to walk around with a six-pack.
Whenever he returns to Baltimore, most of Tapper's old friends are doing nothing. Opportunities are scarce for those in his neighborhood. Tapper lists Los Angeles Rams receiver Tavon Austin and Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton as two pro players with the same mind-set as himself. He wants kids in Baltimore to see there is a way out.
Now, especially after a knockout performance at the Combine, he'll have a chance to do that.
“Baltimore’s a tough city," Tapper said. "You could be on a clear-cut path and still something bad can happen to you. That’s how rough the city is. The city is trying to evolve and it needs guys like me, Tavon Austin, Will Barton to go back and give the younger kids a vision. Give them a vision that you need to get to college and see the world and get out of this place to see there are better things in this world and that Baltimore can be a better city.
"But right now, any of us can go back and none of us have any problems with anybody in Baltimore but once we get there, they’re going to be like ‘We have a problem.’ It might be because we have on some nice things. It might be because they don’t like us. I was never in any gangs and never in any drug deals—nothing like that.
"It’s just being from Baltimore, being from the city, things happen.”