The Cleveland Browns have one of the weakest linebacker groups in the NFL, and to help fix that, the team selected LSU rookie Jacob Phillips in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. What can fans expect to see out of Phillips this season, and how does Mack Wilson’s injury affect his role?
Cleveland Browns Film Room: What to expect from rookie linebacker Jacob Phillips in 2020
Why Jacob Phillips was a third-round pick
Many viewed Phillips as a Day 3 prospect during the pre-draft process. He didn’t typically get much attention, as that was saved for the other Tigers linebacker Patrick Queen, whose straight-line speed made him a first-round pick as he went to the rival Baltimore Ravens. Ultimately, the Browns took Phillips at 97th overall.
Ohio State’s Malik Harrison was on the board at this point and was considered by most to be a superior prospect to Phillips. However, the Browns thought differently and allowed Harrison to fall to the Ravens with the very next pick. There is still a good argument to be made that Phillips was overdrafted, but there are reasons why Cleveland liked him.
Size and explosion
Phillips’ NFL Combine performance was mixed. He measured in at 6-3 229 pounds, giving him ideal size, but lacking bulk for a middle linebacker. There should be room on his frame to add more muscle, so getting into the 235-240 range should be the goal, and if he can climb higher than that, great.
Phillips does pack a punch in his thin frame and amplifies that by playing with good leverage and technique. Andrew Thomas has a massive size and power advantage over Phillips, but here, the linebacker shocked and stonewalled Thomas, a feat few defenders have achieved.
Phillips’ Relative Athletic Score was a very good 8.2. That number was thanks to his excellent performance in the jumps, as he hit marks of 39 inches in the vertical and 10-6 in the broad.
However, the rest of Phillips’ performance was not nearly as impressive. His 40-yard dash time of 4.66 seconds is not terrible, but it is not what you want to see in a modern linebacker who needs to be able to run well. Even worse, Phillips tested poorly in the agility drills, logging a 4.33 in the shuttle and a 7.38 in the 3-cone. Those are the most concerning numbers; coverage ability has a lot to do with how quickly a player can change direction, and Phillips does not do that well. His feel for coverage right now is reduced and needs to improve before he can be on the field for third down plays.
Production and reliability
Phillips started for two seasons at LSU and as well as seeing the field as a true freshman in 2017. In 34 games, Phillips totaled 218 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss. More importantly, he missed only three of his 88 solo tackle attempts in 2019, which was the best mark in the country. For a player who just turned 21 in April, Phillips is very assignment-smart. He knows his job and executes it.
Phillips will rarely be caught out of position, and consistently makes the correct run fit. When he is in place to make a tackle, he almost always does. It seems like the Browns just wanted an MLB who was going to stop the run, and Phillips fits that description. He may not be a big hitter or an impact tackler, but he doesn’t generally miss.
That’s not to say that Phillips is a perfect tackler. His lack of agility hurts him in the open field, which is why it will be best for him to remain inside.
Intelligence. experience and leadership
Phillips has played a lot of football over the past two seasons and has performed well against the best competition. He emerged as a leader of the LSU defense in 2019 and is well-respected by his former coaches and teammates. He diagnoses plays quickly and makes few mistakes when the action is in front of him. Smart, high-character, and reliable. Those are the traits that this front office looks for, and Phillips is an example of all three.
What will Phillips’ role be in his rookie season?
B.J. Goodson was signed in free agency to play MIKE and has reportedly looked very good thus far in training camp, displaying improved coverage ability, which has been his weakness through four NFL seasons. Phillips will need to prove he has also developed in coverage if he is to supplant Goodson as the starter.
If that doesn’t happen right away, Phillips could see playing time at WILL, as expected starter Mack Wilson suffered a severe knee injury last week, the extent of which is still unknown. Phillips and second-year player Sione Takitaki will compete for that job, and should put together a good battle. Takitaki has the best physical and athletic profile in the LB room but didn’t play much on defense as a rookie.
The Browns will likely employ only two linebackers as a team on the majority of snaps and are more likely to play only one LB than three under defensive coordinator Joe Woods. That means there aren’t a ton of snaps to go around for the unit, and if Wilson can return this year, two of the four players mentioned previously won’t get much action. Phillips has three trump cards; his explosion, his reliability, and his intelligence. Those three traits could move him into the starting lineup quickly, especially if Goodson struggles early on.
What is Phillips’ potential in the NFL?
Phillips’ role in 2020, and for the rest of his career, hinges on him improving in coverage. There is very little room in today’s NFL for a linebacker who cannot cover, so that needs to be Phillips’ primary objective. If he can’t do that, he’ll likely become what Goodson is now; a solid run-stopper and special teamer who will bounce from team to team on minimum contracts to play a backup role.
If Phillips can become a useful contributor in coverage, then things get interesting. He doesn’t have to be Luke Kuechly or Bobby Wagner, but if he can become Joe Schobert or Jake Ryan from a coverage perspective, he’ll have a long NFL career. However, it’s fair to wonder whether that will ever happen, given his almost nonexistent feel right now combined with his low-level agility. But the Browns chose him over multiple other linebackers who were better in coverage as college players. Based on Andrew Berry’s work thus far, he might just know what he’s doing.