The New England Patriots’ pass rush is coming off a weird season. While the group ranked fifth in the league in pressure rate, it finished with the seventh worst sack total in the league. Converting pressure into actual quarterback takedowns has to be a defensive goal for 2021, and New England made some pretty big investments to achieve it.
New England bolstered its interior defensive line by re-signing, among others, Deatrich Wise Jr, and also brought Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy in to bolster the edge. There might not be an obvious need to add more talent to the group via the draft — especially given that Chase Winovich and Josh Uche are still on the roster as well — but if a high-ceiling prospect falls into the team’s lap why wouldn’t it grab him?
Name: Jaelan Phillips
Position: Defensive edge/Outside linebacker
School: Miami (Redshirt Junior)
Opening day age: 22
2020 stats: 10 games (10 starts); 45 tackles (15.5 tackles for loss); 41 quarterback pressures (7 sacks, 5 hits, 29 hurries); 1 interception
Size: 6054, 260 lbs, 80 3/4 wingspan, 33 1/4 arm, 9 3/4 hand
Workout numbers: 4.57 40-yard dash, 36 broad jump, 10’5” vertical jump, 4.18 short shuttle, 7.13 3-cone drill, 21 bench press reps
Expected round: 1st-2nd
Patriots pre-draft meeting: N/A
Strengths: Phillips is one of the best edge defenders in this year’s draft class due to his impressive mix of frame and athletic profile. A former 5-star recruit who repeatedly flashed his talents even before his transfer from UCLA to Miami after the 2018 season, he is a speedster around the edge with the explosiveness to make life hard for NFL tackles. He is able to bend around the corner and has the active hands to get linemen off him once they are trying to engage.
While speed is the foundation of his game, he also has the power to push the pocket and drive blockers back; his combination of raw strength and long arms is lethal and catches blockers off guard. He knows how to shift gears in an instant which allows him to disengage efficiently. Phillips also has the lateral quickness to set an efficient edge in the running game, while showing a hot-running motor that allows him to chase down plays from the backside.
His production in 2020 was impressive as well. Phillips lived in opponents’ backfield after a change of scenery and finished with eight sacks in just ten games. While he has yet to force a fumble in his career, he has shown the awareness to get his longs arms up to deflect throws — even grabbing an interception as a Hurricane. Phillips is a raw prospect in some respects, but he has tremendous potential.
Weaknesses: “Is he a one-year wonder?” That is a question Phillips likely won’t be able to escape until he proves otherwise. After all, his college career was off to a comparatively slow start: in two seasons at UCLA he registered just four-and-a-half sacks while struggling with injuries. He did not live up to his immense potential until transferring to Miami and sitting out the 2019 season due to NCAA rules. Is his UCLA self more reflective of his NFL potential, or his Miami self?
Speaking of injuries, he has had quite a few of them early in his young career. He suffered three concussions in college and was advised to retire after missing most of the 2018 season; he also missed time as a freshman due to a high-ankle sprain and as a sophomore as he dealt with a wrist issue that required to be surgically repaired twice. His medical evaluation will be key.
As for his on-field performance, Phillips is not yet where he needs to be to succeed in the NFL. His technique is a bit on and off: he needs to get more consistent in playing to his leverage and keeping his shoulders low, and also has to get more diverse with his pass rush. moves; his speed rush can be lethal but he needs to build his arsenal of counters.
Why the Patriots? As noted above, the Patriots’ pass rush was unable to get home on a regular basis in 2020. Adding a player of Phillips’ skillset to the equation should help with that and also give the team another long-term option at the outside linebacker position. This is particularly important considering that Kyle Van Noy is no lock to return for the second year of his deal while Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings are candidates to see more snaps off the ball than in the traditional edge role.
Why not the Patriots? Adding a player of Phillips’ immense talent to the Patriots’ current edge group would obviously it another boost and possibly push it into “elite” territory, but it might also be a waste of resources to a certain degree. New England does not approach the draft thinking about needs but rather about maximizing value, but the club might view a quarterback or cornerback as better value on Day 1 than yet another edge defender. Furthermore, his medicals could be seen as a disqualifier.
What would be his role in New England in 2021? The Patriots are well set along the defensive edge following the additions of Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy in free agency, but Phillips would still find his way onto the field as a rookie. His speed and knack for the football would make him a prime candidate to see considerable snaps in passing situations early on, while slowly being incorporated into more base looks as well. He would be used in more of a rotational role at first but could see more playing time as the season goes along.
What would be his role in New England beyond 2021? You do not invest a first- or early second-round pick in a player without expecting him to become a starting-caliber player one day. The expectation for Phillips following his rookie year would be just that: to become the top dog on the defensive edge alongside Matthew Judon, and to help replace Kyle Van Noy and possibly Chase Winovich further down the line. Ideally, Phillips would become an asset on all three defensive downs.
Does he have positional versatility? The Patriots sure love their move linebackers — versatile players capable of aligning both on the edge and off the ball — but Phillips does not fall into that category. He is a more traditional edge rusher, having played 96 percent of his defensive snaps last year from the 5-technique position out. His usage at the next level is not expected to change all too much, even though he might be moved inside on obvious passing downs and as part of NASCAR packages.
What is his special teams value? While Phillips will likely not develop into a core special teamer anytime soon he can have some value in the game’s third phase. The Patriots could use him as an edge rusher on field goal and extra point blocking units, and possibly also in select punt pressure packages. However, he likely will not see any more snaps in the kicking game: despite his intriguing athletic profile he will be asked to contribute on defense first and foremost.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Phillips would be a lock to make the roster in 2021 due to his projected status as a first- or at the very least early second-round selection. In terms of playing time, he would compete against the other edge and move linebackers on the roster: Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Tashawn Bower and Rashod Berry. If he is able to adapt quickly and carve out a regular role, he might allow New England to use other players — Van Noy? Uche? Jennings? — more in an off-the-ball role.
Verdict: While he does have his fair share of red flags, Phillips’ has all the tools to become a successful edge defender at the next level. His talent and sky-high ceiling cannot be denied, as can be his potential fit in the New England system: the Patriots would put him in a position to take advantage of his speed and high motor, and ultimately make him a prominent piece in their rebuilt front seven. The biggest question is whether or not they will actually be in a position to select him or if they opt to go another direction in the first round.