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Patriots 2020 roster breakdown: Adrian Phillips adds intriguing versatility to New England’s secondary, special teams

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: WR Marqise Lee

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.

Today, the series continues with one of New England’s offseason acquisitions.

Hard facts

Name: Adrian Phillips

Position: Safety

Jersey number: TBD

Opening day age: 28

Size: 5-foot-11, 210 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)


What is his experience? Phillips originally arrived in the NFL as an undrafted rookie signing by the then-San Diego Chargers in 2014. Early on in his career, his usage was reflective of his draft status: Phillips moved between the team’s roster and practice squad on a regular basis and appeared in only 12 combined games over his first two years in the league. His role on both defense and in the kicking game slowly started the grow as well, however, and he became a top-five defensive back for the Chargers by 2016 and also a core special teamer.

During the four seasons between 2016 and 2019, Phillips had carved out a role a versatile chess piece in the team’s secondary: lining up all over the formation, he appeared in 54 of a possible 66 games and registered five interceptions, two forced fumbles plus one recovery, and an average of 43.8 tackles per season. Furthermore, he was named to the Pro Bowl and first All-Pro squad for his special teams work in 2018. Even in 2019, when he missed nine games due to injury, Phillips showed his value to Los Angeles’ defensive operation.

What did his 2019 season look like? Phillips entered 2019 coming off arguably the best year of his career, but he eventually still returned to the Chargers in free agency via a one-year, $2 million contract — a deal shaped by his role as the team’s third safety. His usage was originally expected to look accordingly during his sixth season with the club, but a foot injury suffered by fellow defensive back Derwin James in training camp increased Phillips’ role and effectively made him a starter once the regular season began.

Phillips therefore rarely left the field early on during his 2019 campaign, while simultaneously seeing a smaller role in the kicking game. However, his tenure as the Chargers’ de facto starting strong safety came to an end in Week 2: in the fourth quarter of the team’s game against the Detroit Lions, the veteran broke his right forearm on a tackle attempt; he was placed on injured reserve two days later. Phillips would spend the next two months on the sidelines, before returning to practice in mid-November.

Filling the second of Los Angeles’ IR-return spots — the first went to Derwin James — he was back on the field by Week 13. Playing his familiar role as the third member of the safety rotation and a core special teamer, Phillips appeared in the final five regular season games for the 5-11 Chargers. His 2019 résumé therefore reads as follows: he saw the field in seven games, while playing 28.9% of the team’s snaps on defense (281 of 972) as well as 23.6% in the kicking game (97 of 411).

Along the way, he registered 32 tackles on the defensive side of the ball and four more on special teams. Phillips also had one quarterback hurry and allowed 12 of 14 passes thrown into his coverage areas to be completed for a combined 75 yards. While his numbers were not spectacular, and lacked the big-play element that helped him earn numerous individual accolades the previous season, he was still one of Los Angeles’ better defensive players whenever on the field.

2020 preview

What is his projected role? The Patriots signed Phillips in free agency shortly after trading their number three safety of the last seven years to the Lions: while Phillips is more of a box safety compared to Duron Harmon, who saw most of his action as a deep centerfielder, he has the experience and versatility to effectively fill Harmon’s old role as the next man up behind starting options Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. Based on his skillset and previous usage, he is projected to serve as a rotational box safety to take some pressure off Chung and second-round rookie Kyle Dugger.

What is his special teams value? During his last fully healthy season (2018), Phillips was one of the best special teams players in the NFL due to his athleticism and quick diagnosing skills. The Chargers therefore used him on all four of their kick coverage teams and also regularly employed him on their field goal and extra point blocking units. As for the Patriots, the expectation is that he will play a similar role and that he could be a candidate to fill the personal protector job previously held by free agency departee Nate Ebner.

Does he have positional versatility? Phillips’ versatility is on display not just due to his special teams usage but also how L.A. opted to move him all over the formation on the defensive side of the ball. In 2019, according to Pro Football Focus, he played 122 snaps as a box safety, 72 as a slot cornerback, 60 as a free safety, 18 on the defensive line, and nine more on the perimeter. While it remains to be seen how the Patriots will eventually try to take advantage of his versatility, Phillips’ skillset is intriguing.

What is his salary cap situation? New England signed Phillips to a two-year, $6 million free agency contract in March and he will therefore account for a salary cap hit of $2.22 million in 2020. The number alone does not necessarily stand out, but the guarantees attached to it effectively make him a lock to be on the Patriots’ roster this year: based on his salary guarantee — $1 million of his $1.25 million salary is guaranteed — in combination with his signing bonus proration, New England would lose $781,250 against their cap in case they release Phillips.

What is his roster outlook? His contractual situation essentially guarantees Phillips a spot on New England’s roster this season. The question, however, will be how the team eventually uses him: he is expected to become a four-unit special teamer, but could also play a prominent role on the defensive side of the ball as the number two strong safety behind Chung. In this capacity, the 28-year-old would likely see regular action against tight ends and in run support while also giving the team an upgrade over 2019 Chung-backup Terrence Brooks.