Miami edge rusher Jaelan Phillips enters the 2021 NFL Draft process as a prospect with a decorated yet bizarre background that requires intense vetting and research before there can be much confidence in his final grade. But from a physical attributes standpoint, there may not be a more appealing defensive prospect in the entire class.
Phillips’ college career began at UCLA after a sensational high school tenure at Redlands Valley East in Redlands, California. He was designated a five-star recruit and one of the prize prospects of his recruiting class. Phillips was ranked the No. 3 recruit in the country by ESPN and was Scout’s top-rated defensive end. He checked-in sixth on Rivals’ top-100 list. Phillips dazzled during his senior season when he registered 142 tackles and 21 sacks.
Unfortunately, his career as a Bruin didn’t live up to the billing. He totaled just 4.5 sacks in two seasons with UCLA before retiring from football in 2019 following a series of injuries (ankle, wrist and concussion) and an admitted loss of passion for the game. Phillips ultimately decided he missed the game too much and transferred to Miami (he was forced to sit out the 2019 season due to transfer rules). His return to the field in 2020 brought the best out of him, both on and off the field.
Phillips finished the 2020 season with a career-best 45 tackles and a team-high 15.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in 10 starts.
Physically, Phillips stands an estimated 6-5, 260 pounds. Some reports had him listed as high as 270 pounds, which seems about right. He’s a well-built player with a thick (not fat) frame that he carries exceptionally well. He looks the part of an NFL edge defender in a 4-3 front. His arm length isn’t elite, but it’s adequate.
Athletically, few players with Phillips’ size move as well and as effortlessly as he does. He has movement skills similar to a second-level linebacker. He’s twitchy and explosive and answered any questions about his desire with how hard he hustles on every play. There were numerous reps on tape where he’s chasing ball-carriers downfield and well out of his assignment range. Those hustle plays were a showcase of his straight-line speed, which is expected to be near the top of the class for his position.
Phillips flashes elite pass-rushing potential on tape. He’s extremely flexible for a player his size and he uses that flexibility to his advantage to turn the corner. His first step and initial burst are exciting. Phillips closes quickly on the quarterback and has the necessary lower-body strength needed to fight through contact en route to a sack. His hand play is appealing, too. He’s effective in keeping himself clean and can string together a variety of pass-rush moves as needed. There’s room for growth, however, as he at times gets away with simply being a better athlete than his opponent. His pad level needs work; he can be neutralized by his opponent because of a fixable flaw. He’ll stand too high out of his stance instead of keeping his pad level low. When he’s clicking on all cylinders, there may not be a better pass-rusher in the class.
Phillips is an effective run defender too. He’s strong at the point of attack and has little trouble working himself free from his opponent. He has the necessary awareness to locate the ball and attack with a finisher’s mentality. Phillips is equally effective in pursuit down the line of scrimmage as he is against power plays coming in his direction.
Overall, Phillips will be an attractive prospect for every team, regardless of scheme. He’s athletic enough to play in a two-point stance and he’s strong and bulky enough to be a three-point guy in an odd or even front. That said, Phillips isn’t without his red flags. He’ll have to answer ‘want to’ questions resulting from his decision to walk away from the game in 2019 and his admitted last one in, first one out mentality at UCLA. He erased most of those concerns with his commitment level once he got to Miami, especially in the weight room. He stepped up when the Hurricanes needed him most following the opt-out of Gregory Rousseau and he flourished under the heightened pressure.
Phillips has been a highly-regarded football player since his high school days and he validated those grades with an exceptional season in 2020. He has an incredibly high ceiling with the potential to develop into a perennial double-digit sack guy in the NFL. He’s one of the most physically gifted defenders in the 2021 NFL draft whose talent should make him a high first-round pick.
GRADE: 8.3 (first round)