With mandatory minicamp in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with veteran safety Adrian Phillips.
Name: Adrian Phillips
Position: Safety/Defensive back/Off-the-ball linebacker
Jersey number: 21
Opening day age: 30
Size: 5-foot-11, 210 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2024 (2025 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.
Since joining New England, Phillips has seen prominent playing time within the team’s secondary. Serving as a “star” defender regularly moving between safety and off-the-ball linebacker, he appeared in a combined 34 regular season and playoff games. He registered six interceptions — including one returned for a touchdown — as well as a sack, forced fumble and 207 tackles. Phillips was additionally named the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week at one point last October.
What did his 2021 season look like? Even though he found himself in a difficult position on numerous occasions due to the lack of talent around him, his 2020 campaign was arguably the best of Phillips’ career in the NFL. As a result of the solid foundation he was able to build, the entered Year 2 — the final season of the free agency deal he signed with the Patriots — as a realistic candidate to make the famous second-year jump and further solidify his status as one of the most valuable members of the New England defense.
Phillips was able to do just that. Given his experience in the system and ability to line up in multiple spots all over the Patriots second- and third-level defense, he again carved out a prominent role. Serving as a starter alongside veteran Devin McCourty and second-year man Kyle Dugger, he appeared in all 18 of the team’s games and ended up fourth on the list of playing time leaders: Phillips was on the field for 920 of a possible 1,135 defensive snaps for New England in 2022, resulting in a playing time share of 81.1 percent.
Just like he did the previous season, Phillips again served as a jack-of-all-trades within the Patriots’ secondary. However, his versatility was even more pronounced than it was in 2020. After spending the majority of his time aligned either in the box (63.4%) or on the defensive line (21.8%) — seeing only a comparative handful of snaps as a slot defender (8.3%), deep safety (3.8%) or outside cornerback (2.7%) — New England opted to give him more responsibilities as a versatile member of its defense.
While still predominately used a so-called “star” — essentially playing a linebacker/safety hybrid role — and aligning in the box 44.8 percent of his snaps, he received more opportunities elsewhere. His snap count in the slot (15.9%) and at the free safety position (15.5%) increased significantly, while he still regularly lined up on the D-line (17.8%) and even split out wide (6%). Wherever the Patriots needed an extra body, they did not shy away from trusting Phillips with carrying out the assignment.
His statistics reflected his usage. Phillips ended the season with 93 combined tackles; 52 came against the run with 41 versus the pass. Tackles alone do not show the full extent of Phillips’ impact on New England’s defense, though. He also was solid in coverage, giving up 37 receptions on 61 targets for 333 yards and five touchdowns. However, he also had four interceptions — including one in Week 8 against his former team that was returned for a touchdown; helping him earn AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Phillips’ contributions also included three quarterback pressures and a forced fumble. Additionally, he saw regular action on special teams as well. Appearing on five kicking game units but seeing most of his opportunities on the kickoff coverage squad, he took the field for 149 of 464 snaps in the game’s third phase (32.1%) and registered five tackles. Phillips’ performance across the board earned him a contract extension before the end of the season: he Patriots extended he pending free agent on a three-year, $ 12.8 million deal.
What is his projected role? As mentioned above, the Patriots used Phillips in several roles within their secondary the last two seasons. Heading into 2022 — his third year in the system — he should be expected to be used in a similar fashion yet again. So, his projected role will once again be a multi-faceted one: he will see a majority of snaps as a “star” linebacker/safety while also being employed in the slot, as a free safety and perimeter cornerback and on special teams.
Does he have positional versatility? Well, duh! Phillips might very well be one of the most versatile players on the Patriots’ roster. He is capable of playing every position in the secondary, while also serving as an off-the-ball linebacker and — in theory, at least — core special teamer. New England’s coaches are willing to use him as a chess piece and move him around the formation however they see fit. If that is not the hallmark of a versatile player, we don’t know what is.
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 two seasons in New England, however, his kicking game opportunities looked a bit different: he still saw action on all four coverage and return units, but was employed more sparingly than in years past; in 2021, for example, he only saw regular snaps on the kickoff coverage squad. As long as his defensive role continues to be as prominent as it is, he will likely remain a rotational special teamer rather compared to players such as Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel or Cody Davis.
What is his salary cap situation? Based on his potential contributions to the 2022 Patriots, Phillips’ contract is one of the biggest bargains on the roster. His salary cap hit, after all, is a mere $3.19 million — the 20th highest on the team at the moment. Phillips will play on a fully-guaranteed $1.12 million salary while also earning a $1.19 million signing bonus proration as well as $880,000 in likely-to-be earned roster and workout bonuses.
How safe is his roster spot? Phillips is one of multiple players on New England’s roster whose spot on the team is 100 percent secure, for a few reasons. One, is the construction of his contract: his dead cap charge in case of a release is $3.69 million and therefore bigger than his current salary cap figure. There is also his potential contributions to the Patriots’ defense as a starter-level player this year, his experience and leadership, and the fact that he and fellow safety Kyle Dugger appear to be seen as the future at the position.
One-sentence projection: Just like the last two years, Phillips will be a do-it-all starter for the Patriots defense and finish among its leaders in multiple statistical categories as well as playing time.