Jaelan Phillips Is NFL Draft's Biggest Boom-or-Bust Defensive Player

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystApril 13, 2021

Jaelan Phillips of Miami celebrates a defensive stop during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)
Matt Gentry/Associated Press

In a world divided by pretty much any topic, it's possible for a person to be two things at once. 

The thought of Miami's Jaelan Phillips being the best available defensive prospect for the 2021 NFL draft while simultaneously understanding he will be off some boards altogether should be acknowledged. 

Even in an atypical offseason with no NFL Scouting Combine or predraft visits, medical evaluations remain the most important aspect of the scouting process, though they've been more difficult to obtain. 

Whoever drafts Phillips must be comfortable with the medical red flags throughout his collegiate career and not let one exceptional season with the Hurricanes become the driving force behind his selection. 

Four years ago, Phillips committed to the UCLA Bruins as the nation's No. 1 recruit. The 5-star prospect had future NFL star written all over him. He played in six games as a true freshman, recording seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He did so despite injuries to both ankles. His first concussion ended the campaign. 

The following offseason, Phillips suffered a horrific wrist injury that required the removal of three bones after he was cut off by a car in the bike lane and thrown off his moped.  

Still, the defensive lineman played through the pain at the start of his sophomore campaign only to suffer a second concussion in less than a year. 

"I had a lot of expectations, both for myself and from people, and getting those injuries ... as an athlete, our body is our asset, so when your body starts failing you, it's a weird feeling. It derails what you've got going on," Phillips said in October, per ESPN's Andrea Adelson

Heeding the advice of his doctors, the burgeoning star chose to medically retire. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

In his year away from the game, Phillips attended classes at Los Angeles Community College and worked for his father, who is a lawyer. Eventually, former UCLA head coach Jim L. Mora reignited Phillips' interest to play again. Mora no longer coached the Bruins, though. Phillips chose to transfer to The U, where he made his impact felt throughout the program. 

"When your best players practice and play as hard as he does, it sets a standard," Miami defensive coordinator Blake Baker told Adelson. "That's something that hasn't necessarily been the case around here, especially among the older players."

The transition wasn't instantaneous. Phillips had walked into a new situation after basically giving up the sport he loved. Questions about his burgeoning music career are also part of the equation. 

"Just turn on my tape. I love football, going out there putting my talent on display. I play with my hair on fire. Music isn't a distraction by any means," Phillips told reporters. "I never lost my passion for football, just needed a lil' kick in the butt." 

Once he established a comfort level, no one could deny his on-field capabilities. 

At 6'5" and 260 pounds, Phillips is a natural edge-rusher. When compared to everyone else in the class, he has the best combination of size, length, fluidity and hustle. Phillips can dip his shoulder, lean and shorten the porch toward the quarterback with relative ease. The defensive end displays heavy hands, a closing burst and a relentlessness to run down whoever has the ball. 

As a run defender, the 21-year-old is more than capable of setting the edge and maintaining his responsibilities. He played from a two- and three-point stance. 

In 10 games in 2020, the second-team All-American secured 15.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. In all but one contest, he generated three or more quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus. His pass-rushing grade ranked second among edge defenders expected to be drafted in this year's first round, according to PFF's Brent Rollins

Phillips presents the entire package.

"He's got a chance to be really special," a coach told The Athletic's Bruce Feldman. "He's explosive and really smooth. He's athletic enough to be a 3-4 outside linebacker. He can bend. He's versatile. He's strong. I think he should run in the 4.6s or maybe in the 4.5s. The one thing is, he has to do a better job of controlling his emotions."

From an athletic standpoint, Phillips posted excellent numbers during Miami's pro day before an exceptional position workout. As PFF's Austin Gayle noted, the defensive end posted numbers in the 90th percentile or better in the broad jump (10'5")an indicator of lower-body explosivity40-yard dash (unofficial 4.56 seconds) and short shuttle (4.13 seconds). 


If you don't know @CanesFootball EDGE Jaelan Phillips... You'll definitely know him once you see his Pro Day highlights. 😤 @JJPhillips15 https://t.co/i6pDpRFZTN

For context, Phillips registered the 14th-best relative athletic score among defensive ends over the last 34 years, according to Pro Football Network's Kent Lee Platte

Sometimes it's difficult to stand out among the athletes at Miami. The Hurricanes pro day also featured another potential first-round defensive end in Gregory Rousseau and a later-round talent in Quincy Roche. Yet, Phillips is considered the clear top talent. 

Another coach told Feldman:

"As big a year as Miami’s Greg Rousseau had in 2019, Phillips' 2020 performance was even more impressive. He's more stout than Rousseau at this point, and the level of tenacity he plays with is ridiculous. His motor never stopped. He’s such a freak athlete in the way he can move and how explosive he is, but he’s really completely reworked his body. He’s extremely powerful."

A clean bill of health remains the lone factor against Phillips' ascension on draft boards. Although he wasn't able to join approximately 150 top prospects this past weekend for the combine medical check in Indianapolis, Phillips will complete a physical prior to the start of the draft April 29, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

Still, there's a difference between an independent examination and one conducted by NFL personnel. Some franchises aren't comfortable with the results unless their doctors have checked out the player in question.

Matt Gentry/Associated Press

Phillips told reporters he's fully healthy, of course: 

"If you watched pro day, my wrist is still working and obviously I'm healthy. I don't think it's a risk at all. We play a dangerous, violent game, so obviously people get hurt but I wouldn't be here today if I was a risk. I'm a guy who does all the right things, does all the extra things to make sure my body is on point. I truly believe if you take care of your body your body will take care of you."

At the same time, organizations will base decisions, particularly first-round investments, on the perceived risk factor. Phillips is only 21 years old. But how will his body hold up four or five years down the road? That lack of certainty based on his injury history likely frightens some decision-makers. 

To be fair, an individual can't be defined by one thing. For Phillips, he is both the most talented defender in the upcoming class and one of its biggest medical mysteries. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.