The time is here, Bucs fans. We’ve got a real-life prospect to talk about at No. 32 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft.
There’s a real possibility the best edge defender in the 2021 class is going to be available for the Bucs at No. 32, but the reasons for his presence on the board could be cause for concern.
Miami pass rusher Jaelan Phillips may be a late bloomer on the college scene, but when he took off, it was straight for the moon. Blessed with exceptional size and athletic ability, Phillips was a five-star prospect and the top recruit in the nation out of high school, per 247sports.com’s rankings. Despite tons of offers, Phillips opted to stay close to home, choosing UCLA as his college destination back in 2017.
As a true freshman Phillips flashed tantalizing potential, recording 3.5 sacks and seven tackles-for-loss as a part-time player in UCLA’s defense. But disaster struck soon after that, as Phillips suffered a wrist injury in a scooter accident, sprains to both ankles, and three concussions, the last of which forced him into a medical retirement after his injury-laden sophomore season at UCLA.
After pursuing music in 2018, Phillips ultimately entered the transfer portal and ended up in Miami, where he needed to get back to his playing weight after dipping down to 218 pounds during his time off. According to his father in an article with 247sports.com, Phillips had told him that he “was the last one in the building and the first one out” at UCLA and that his love for the sport had waned before his medical retirement.
But the passion must have returned in abundance, as Phillips stacked on weight during a redshirt transfer season in 2019, getting back up to 266 pounds of shredded muscle. It took a couple games to get back in the rhythm of football again, but by the second half of his redshirt junior season, Phillips was again the best player on the field in most games. He erupted for eight sacks and 15.5 tackles-for-loss in ten games, destroying opposing offenses during the final seven games of the year. Virginia Tech caught the worst of it, as Phillips picked up 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles-for-loss in the game.
Phillips would probably be a great cornering pass rusher (meaning he wins around the outside hip of the offensive tackle) just due to his speed and flexibility, but the fact that he also knows how to manipulate opponents with outstanding footwork puts him in a special tier of pass rusher in this class. In college, edge rushers might be able to get away with simply running around tackles to the quarterback, but in the NFL, it typically requires more nuance than that to win the edge in one-on-one situations.
Phillips’ attacks the defender’s frame off the snap, with his eyes and his feet committing to a bull rush before jab stepping and accelerating up the arc. The blocker, realizing the bull rush isn’t coming, is surprised by the jab step and burst from Phillips, and reacts by lunging to stop the inevitable. Phillips flashes the long arm, then pulls it back and simply turns the corner as the tackle misses with his punch. High level movement skills to be sure, but the sophistication of the pass rush is what makes Phillips a potentially special prospect.
When you can win the edge like Phillips can, it opens up the full arsenal for a pass rusher. Afraid of the edge rusher’s speed, Virginia Tech’s right tackle oversets slightly, and Phillips bursts inside of him with a quick and clean club-swim for the sack. Nasty setup and finish, but don’t sleep on how quickly Phillips is able to cross his opponent’s face while barely being touched.
It was a long day for Hokies’ No. 69.
It wasn’t just Virginia Tech either. Nobody could stop Phillips throughout most of the season, even when Miami kicked him inside to rush. Phillips is powerful enough to hold up against interior offensive linemen, but a huge mismatch in terms of quickness and flexibility. It was a complete cheat code to put him against centers and guards in the ACC.
In terms of traits and attributes as a pass rusher, there is very little that Phillips doesn’t have in abundance. Remember, when you can win the edge as a pass rusher with speed, flexibility, hand usage and footwork, you’re already a problem. Combine that with Phillips’ devastating inside moves, and you’ve got a top ten talent in this class. Once the power moves and long arms get worked into the repertoire, Phillips has the potential to be a high end edge rusher in the NFL.
But there are questions that remain. Right or wrong, like it or not, NFL teams will question Phillips’ time at UCLA, wondering what all the factors were that temporarily detracted from his love of the game and whether music will supplant football in his life again. I understand that NFL teams don’t want to make a mistake in the draft, but we also can’t let the fact that athletes have other passions outside of football keep us from believing they can be great pros. Football doesn’t have to be a player’s entire life for him to be good at it.
Injuries might be the biggest worry with Phillips, as three documented concussions are clearly cause for concern. The big edge rusher insists he’s fully healthy now, and there is no reason to doubt that after the season he just had at Miami, but NFL doctors will certainly want to do their own evaluations. With concussions, it can only take one to put your career in jeopardy, even if defensive linemen are at less risk than many other positions.
If Phillips can stay on the field and is 100 percent committed to his craft, however, there is little doubt in my mind what he can be. Will 31 other teams be afraid to take the risk on a potentially special player due to the concerns outside of the football field?
Only time will tell, but there is little question that if Phillips falls to No. 32, he’ll almost certainly be the best player on the board for the Bucs, especially considering that edge rusher is a position of need for Tampa Bay. Even if Shaq Barrett is re-signed, Jason Pierre-Paul is entering a contract year at 32 years old, and there is no depth to speak of behind the duo.
Phillips fit in Tampa Bay makes a ton of sense both schematically (he often played from a 2-point stance in college) and in terms of the team’s needs, but there is a lot of evaluation to be done before the Bucs go on the clock at the end of April. Crazier things have happened than a player of Phillips’ caliber falling down the board during the draft, and Tampa Bay is in position to be aggressive if they believe in the person as much as I believe in the player.