Having looked at each of the Jets’ draft picks in detail, we’ve now moved on to discuss each of their undrafted free agent signings. We continue today with a breakdown of Tennessee defensive lineman Kyle Phillips.
The 22-year old is listed at 6’4” and 277 pounds and started 20 games in his career with the Vols. He set career highs in his senior year with 55 tackles, four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss.
Phillips was a four-star recruit out of high school, but redshirted his first season in 2015. He didn’t make much of an impact during his first two seasons, as he totaled 23 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two passes defensed and just one sack.
He entered his junior year as a reserve, having started just one game - a 2016 match-up against Tennessee Tech - in his first two years. He got off to a slow start in 2017 too, with just nine tackles in the first five games. However, when starting defensive end Darrell Taylor was suspended following an altercation with a teammate, Phillips moved into the starting line-up and remained there for the last seven games.
During those last seven games, Phillips had 24 tackles and recorded his only two sacks of the year in a win over Southern Miss. However, that was the only one of Phillips’ seven starts that Tennessee won.
As a senior, Phillips developed into a leader as a full-time starter. He racked up a career high 55 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks and made some impact plays that led to a couple of touchdowns.
Phillips was not invited to the scouting combine or the senior bowl, but had a good week at the East-West Shrine Game and was projected as a mid-to-late round pick in the draft following a good pro day. The Jets signed him as an undrafted free agent after he went unselected.
Now let’s take a look at what Phillips brings to the table, divided into categories.
Phillips has adequate size and length for a defensive end role, but was viewed as an undersized interior lineman during much of his college career.
He turned heads at his pro day by running an impressive 4.68 40-yard dash at 277 pounds, but his other workout numbers were less impressive. His strength and explosiveness numbers were about average and his agility numbers were poor.
On film, Phillips has flashes of spectacular athleticism such as this play, for which he was awarded the 2018 “Piesman Trophy” which goes to the “big guy” with the most spectacular athletic play during the season.
As noted, despite being ideally sized for a 4-3 defensive end role, Phillips also got plenty of reps on the interior during his collegiate career. He also saw plenty of reps as a five-technique end and started to play more reps as a stand-up edge rusher in his senior year.
That versatility to play anywhere along the line can be a blessing or a curse as teams may not be sure what his role would be at the NFL level and he could end up being labelled as a tweener.
Phillips is a player who works hard in the trenches and coaches have praised him for giving good effort in pursuit, even during practice to set a good example for his teammates. Phillips was double-teamed a lot, but kept working.
He has shown he can handle a starter’s workload, playing over 50 snaps five times as a junior and six as a senior. He played 75 snaps against Alabama in 2017.
Phillips wasn’t a particularly productive pass rusher in terms of sack numbers or pressure percentages at Tennessee, but - as noted above - that’s partly due to the fact he spent plenty of time on the interior where he saw a lot of double teams.
He displays good burst out of his stance but generally seems to have more success when he takes a more patient approach and looks to make a counter move.
On this play, he uses speed around the edge to chase down the quarterback and force a fumble that was eventually recovered for a touchdown.
Phillips is able to use both his quickness and power to generate pressure and get into the backfield.
Phillips gives good effort in the trenches and has produced plenty of stops in the running game over the past two seasons. He stays at home and reacts well to make this play in the backfield.
At the point of attack, he has mixed results and can struggle to hold up against double teams. On this play, he tries to shoot a gap into the backfield off the left edge but the tight end ends up driving him back into the end zone.
Phillips shows an ability to set the edge at times, gives a good effort in pursuit and can fight off blocks, but is not always consistent against the running game.
Phillips mainly relies on effort as a pass rusher, but occasionally shows off some potential with some pass rush moves.
On this play, he takes a patient approach, drives his man back and then uses a jerk move to get to the quarterback cleanly.
Phillips became a more productive tackler as his playing time increased over the last season and a half. He’ll help bottle up runs and will chase down plays in space. However, he will also overrun plays and take bad angles, leaving him unable to recover.
Phillips didn’t miss a lot of tackles during his career but missed two chances to prevent this first down run.
Although he saw some reps as an outside linebacker, it was very rare for him to drop into coverage. His pick-six against Alabama last year was simply a good reaction to a misplaced pass that more or less landed in his lap.
For his career, Phillips racked up nine passes defensed, including a career high four in his senior year. All of these came on passes batted down at the line.
Phillips was an outstanding student who graduated a year early to do a masters in his senior year. He won multiple academic awards at Tennessee.
On the field, when rushing the passer, Phillips usually keeps his head up and displays good awareness to either chase the quarterback or get his hands up to bat down passes.
By contrast, in the running game, Phillips seems to display questionable vision and awareness. He’ll often be pre-occupied with fighting off a block as a run goes right by him or will take himself out of a play by attempting to shoot a gap and being redirected out of the running lane.
Furthermore, he seemed to be fooled by misdirection and read-option keepers on a regular basis, to the point where some teams may have actively been targeting him as the player to make a read off.
Phillips didn’t contribute much on special teams, although he rushed a few punts and played sparingly in kick coverage. Most of his special teams snaps were on the kick block unit and he made this play against Missouri.
Phillips has been praised as an outstanding leader and has excellent intangibles. While he was described as quiet, Phillips apparently did everything the coaches asked of him and led by example.
He’s a disciplined player who only had two penalties in his college, although one of those negated an interception as he jumped offside.
Phillips was healthy over the last two years, but had some shoulder issues earlier in his career. He had to have three surgeries, including one that ended his freshman season prematurely. He had also missed a couple of games earlier that year with shoulder issues.
As noted above, Phillips has played all over the defensive line so could be considered to be versatile or a tweener.
If he can prove that he’s athletic enough to play on the edge, that’s probably a better bet for him than bulking up and working on the interior. It’s also an easier path to earning a role on this particular team, where the interior depth is good, but the edge depth is spotty.
Phillips going undrafted was probably a combination of confusion over his possible role and perhaps concern over his medicals due to his previous ongoing shoulder issues.
Would Phillips have been the kind of player that Joe Douglas would have signed? Perhaps not. The modest college production and pro day 40-time might not have impressed him. However, he’s likely to be a fan of his intangibles.
The biggest weakness in Phillips’ game seems to be his instincts and awareness against the run, some of which may just have been influenced by the system he played in with the Vols. He needs to bury his head in the playbook to ensure he knows his assignments and plays with discipline to give himself the best chance of showcasing his athleticism and impressing the staff.