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Scouting Jets linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips

NFL: New York Jets at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take an in-depth look at each of the Jets’ offseason acquisitions, continuing today with linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips.

The 24-year old is listed at 6’2” and 230 pounds and was an undrafted free agent out of Illinois in 2019. So far, he’s only played in two NFL games with Buffalo last season, but did not generate any statistics.

Background

Phillips was originally going to attend college at Western Michigan but was forced down the junior college route after being declared academically ineligible.

In his first year playing for Garden City CC, Phillips racked up 72 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Then, in his second season, he led the team to an NJCAA National Football Championship with 95 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and two sacks.

In 2017, he transferred to Illinois, where he started in 10 of his 11 appearances and racked up 85 tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack and two pass breakups. Then, in his senior year, he was an all-Big 10 honorable mention as he posted 95 tackles, six tackles for loss, four interceptions and 1.5 sacks.

Phillips had a good pro day but wasn’t widely expected to be selected in the 2019 draft and ultimately signed with Atlanta as an undrafted free agent.

In preseason, he was productive with 21 tackles and two fumble recoveries. However, he was released in final cuts.

The Bills signed Phillips to their practice squad in October and then to a futures deal at the end of the season. He made the roster but only played on special teams in two games during the 2020 season and ended the year on injured reserve.

The Jets signed Phillips to a one year, minimum salary deal during free agency.

Now let’s take a look at what Phillips brings to the table, divided into categories.

Measurables/Athleticism

Phillips is an undersized linebacker who could be employed in a hybrid safety-type role. However, he has good length and big hands.

At his pro day, Phillips posted excellent speed and explosiveness numbers with a 4.61 in the 40-yard dash and 37-inch vertical leap. However, his agility numbers were below average. He managed 20 bench press reps.

Usage

Phillips has been employed in an off-ball linebacker role throughout his career, although he will occasionally come up to the edge or drop off to match up in coverage. At Illinois, he came up to the line of scrimmage a lot more often in 2017 than in 2018.

Making reads/Instincts

Phillips’ film includes plenty of examples of him making reading his keys to make a decisive play with no hesitation.

However, one thing that’s noticeable is that he appears more comfortable lining up a yard or so further than usual off the line. That’s usually a sign of a player needing an extra split second to effectively make his reads.

This seems to help him, although he’s often reacting rather than anticipating, which can mean he gets to the ball a half-step late and a runner can fall forwards at the end of a run or get to the edge ahead of his.

In coverage, he doesn’t always look comfortable with his assignments and blew the coverage on this play.

Run defense

Phillips has been a productive defender against the run both in college and in his preseason appearances.

He makes a nice play here, gaining an outside leverage advantage so he can keep his outside arm free and pursue the running back out to the sideline.

When a blocker is able to get his hands on him, Phillips can get overpowered, as happens on this play.

However, on this play, he used his quickness to avoid the second level block and fill a running lane.

Coverage skills

Phillips held up quite well in coverage while at Illinois, giving up just two touchdowns and no big plays. In NFL preseason action, he let the tight end run past him down the seam for this 21-yard play.

Phillips showed some playmaking in college with four interceptions in his senior year and three in his sophomore season. He made a good play to break up this pass in preseason.

Tackling

Phillips has been a productive tackler throughout his college career and in preseason, displaying good range, taking smart angles and demonstrating good closing speed and hitting ability.

At times, Phillips will go in low or try to make a big hit rather than wrapping up with good technique, but his tackling efficiency numbers have generally been good.

He failed to make this tackle in the hole, perhaps because he was a half-beat slow to fill the running lane.

Pass rush

Phillips displayed some good blitzing abilities by racking up seven sacks in his first season at Garden City CC, but he only had two sacks the next year and 2.5 in his two years at Illinois. He did generate pressure at a good rate with the Fighting Illini, though.

In preseason action, Phillips had two quarterback hits, one on a rush up the middle and one coming off the edge.

Special teams

Phillips didn’t contribute much on special teams at Illinois, where he had just one special teams tackle in two years.

With the Falcons, he was in on a few tackles in punt coverage, including this impressive play.

In Buffalo, his main contribution was on this play against Seattle, where he lit up pro bowl special teamer Nick Bellore on the opening kickoff to help spring Andre Roberts for a 60-yard return.

Scheme Fit

Phillips probably isn’t a player who has been brought in with a specific role in mind for him in 2021 and beyond. However, he shows the most potential as a Will linebacker who can line up next to the Mike and fly around making plays, so that’s where he can be expected to contribute with the Jets.

Current defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich no doubt saw some potential in Phillips during that 2019 preseason because he was a linebackers coach for the Falcons at that time.

He was a teammate of current Jets players Tanzel Smart and Tyler Kroft while with the Bills.

Intangibles

Phillips went from being academically ineligible at the start of his college career to an academic all-Big 10 selection in his senior year, displaying a good dedication to make it at the NFL level.

Like many of the other players signed this offseason, Phillips was a team captain in college. Having been a tough-minded individual with an excellent work ethic at the JUCO level, Phillips soon became a leader at Illinois and practices good study and preparation habits.

Injuries

Phillips’ 2020 season was disrupted by two spells on injured reserve. He suffered an injured quad and then returned only to go back onto injured reserve later with the same injury.

Conclusions

Phillips is a player who has been brought in because of his potential upside but his chances of becoming a key contributor are slim. Nevertheless, he did turn some heads with some of the plays he made in 2019’s preseason, so he will look to repeat this if he gets to play in preseason this year.

In the short term, Phillips’ goal will be to make the roster as a special teamer and reserve and then perhaps he can work his way into the rotation from there.