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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Adrian Phillips again projects to play a prominent role in New England’s secondary

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: K Roberto Aguayo

NFL: NOV 29 Cardinals at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 89 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series continues with safety Adrian Phillips.

Hard facts

Name: Adrian Phillips

Position: Safety/Off-the-ball linebacker

Jersey number: 21

Opening day age: 29

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 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. Despite his success, however, he left Los Angeles in 2020 to sign a two-year free agent contract with the Patriots.

What did his 2020 season look like? Even though he was coming off a season that saw him miss nine games because of injury, it did not take Phillips long to find a home as a free agent in March 2020. One day after the market opened, the veteran defender signed a two-year, $6 million contract in New England — joining a safety group that was in the midst of a transition process: Duron Harmon had just been traded; Kyle Dugger would get drafted a month later; Patrick Chung would later opt out of the 2020 season.

As a result of all the turnover and his previous experience as a versatile player capable of wearing multiple hats, Phillips carved out a prominent role in his first year as a member of the Patriots’ secondary. Serving as a de facto starter alongside veteran Devin McCourty, he appeared in all 16 of his new team’s games and ended up third on the list of playing time leaders: Phillips was on the field for 73.4 percent of New England’s defensive snaps (746 of 1,017), trailing only McCourty (94.5%) and J.C. Jackson (83.7%) in this department.

Despite not enjoying the benefit of a traditional offseason and the cancelation of preseason football due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Phillips successfully filled the “star” position between strong/box safety and off-the-ball linebacker. As such, he helped not just replace Patrick Chung but also fellow Covid-19 opt-out Dont’a Hightower. His statistics reflect this usage: Phillips ended the season with 107 tackles — 63 of them coming against the run, and 44 more against the pass. No other player on the team had more.

Tackles alone do not show the full extent of Phillips’ impact on a New England defense in the middle of a challenging season. When dropping back into coverage, the first-year Patriot allowed 13 receptions for 102 yards and 2 touchdowns on 23 targets. He also notched 2 interceptions to finish with a defensive passer rating of just 60.4. As a pass rusher, he furthermore picked up 3 quarterback disruptions: Phillips registered a sack and also hurried opposing QBs on two difference occasions.

On top of it all, he also saw regular action in the kicking game. While not as prominently featured on special teams as he was for much of his career as a Charger — a direct result of his usage on the defensive side of the ball — Phillips still finished 12th in terms of playing time: playing on both kickoff and punt coverage units as well as the two return squads, he was on the field for 148 of 399 snaps (37.3%) and registered two tackles. While not qualifying as a “core special teamer” Phillips was still a valuable player.

Despite all of his success during the most unique season in recent memory, not all was positive for Phillips. His size limited his impact as an off-the-ball linebacker option, which was especially apparent against the run and contributed to New England’s issues in this area. He furthermore was unable to finish the season fully healthy, suffering a game-ending hip injury just four snaps into the season finale against the New York Jets. All in all, though, the team can feel good about his contributions in Year 1.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? After seeing the majority of his snaps in 2020 as a “star” playing a hybrid between box safety and linebacker, Phillips is again projected to play a similar role in his second year in the system. He effectively filled the shoes previously worn by since-retired Patrick Chung, and, while undersized, should continue to do so. While his linebacker snap count might change a bit due to the return of Dont’a Hightower, Phillips will likely play close to the box more than split out wide or deep.

What is his special teams value? As a Charger, Phillips established himself as one of the best special teams players in the entire league — even, as noted above, earning All-Pro honors in 2018. During his first season in New England, however, his kicking game opportunities decreased a bit: he still saw action on all four coverage and return units, but was employed more sparingly than in year’s past. In case his role does change with the return of Dont’a Hightower to bolster the linebacker group, Phillips’ special teams snaps might go up again. Either way, he has proven himself capable of performing at a high level in the game’s third phase.

Does he have positional versatility? Phillips’ versatility is on display not just due to his special teams usage but also how both the Patriots and the Chargers opted to move him all over the formation on the defensive side of the ball. In 2020, according to Pro Football Focus, he played 473 snaps as a box safety, 163 on the defensive line, 62 as a slot cornerback, 28 as a free safety, and 20 more on the perimeter. New England will likely again try to take advantage of his versatility to create favorable matchups against both the pass and the run.

What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final season of the two-year contract he signed as a free agent last spring, Phillips will hit the Patriots’ books with a $4.2 million salary cap hit. While only $1.25 million of his cap impact are guaranteed, and the Patriots could create net savings of roughly $2 million by releasing him, the expectation is that he will spend the 2021 season playing under his current deal.

What is his roster outlook? The emergence of second-year safety Kyle Dugger in combination with the return of Dont’a Hightower may change Phillips’ usage within the defense and cut into his playing time, but he should still be considered a near-lock to make the 53-man roster this year. Despite challenging circumstances he still played a prominent role for the Patriots last year, after all, and his versatility and experience are both assets.