Almost every one of the low-profile, high-character free agents the Patriots signed this offseason can be described with this phrase: “You might not have heard of him, but you’re going to love him.”
Earlier this week, we profiled fleet little wideout Damiere Byrd. Now let’s look at a guy with a little thicker resume: safety Adrian Phillips.
A two-year, $6 million deal was all New England needed to secure Phillips. He could end up being a massive bargain.
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He’s 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, was named All-Pro and a Pro Bowler in 2018 for his special teams work, has a stack of testimonials about his massive football brain and is the hybrid box safety the Patriots have been trying but failing to secure through the draft.
Why didn’t the Chargers keep the 28-year-old if he’s so damn good? Safety surplus out there in Los Angeles. The Chargers took Derwin James and Nassir Adderley in the first and second rounds respectively in 2018 and 2019, which paved the way for them to move on from Phillips.
Why would the Patriots want him? Because Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung both turn 33 in August, Duron Harmon got dealt to the Lions, rookie second-rounder Kyle Dugger will need seasoning and on special teams, Nate Ebner is now a Giant.
I’m not going to get into it here, but the fleet of brilliant special teams guys this team has with Matt Slater, Justin Bethel and now Phillips (among others) is impressive. Especially if they have to punt a lot.
Jeff Miller, who covers the Chargers for the Los Angeles Times, raved this week when I asked about Phillips.
“He was tremendous in 2018 (94 tackles, league-leading 19 special teams tackles) and then got hurt last year unfortunately,” said Miller. “He would have had a big role last year because of some injuries. When Derwin James went down they went immediately to Adrian, and he was gonna have a very vital role in their defense but (Phillips) got hurt early on against the Lions and that derailed his season.”
The injury to James was bad enough, said Miller, but the injury to Phillips was one that hurt the team tremendously because Phillips did so many things for them.
What kind of player did the Patriots get?
“He’s a guy (Chargers head coach) Anthony Lynn called one of his core guys,” said Miller. “Real good player, real smart. He would call defenses and put other guys in position and know where they were supposed to be.
“He’s impactful. The Chargers really loved him but they had a surplus at that spot.”
The projected replacement for Phillips in the Chargers defense is Desmond King, another Pro Bowl-level defensive back.
Over the past half-decade, the complementary strengths of the McCourty-Chung-Harmon troika became clear. All were excellent tacklers. McCourty was the sheriff, getting people where they were supposed to be and helping over the top when the Patriots are seeing guys who are tough for corners to handle 1-on-1.
Chung has been the enforcer playing run-support in the box and being one of the league’s best at covering tight ends, slots and running backs in the passing game. Harmon was a third safety with a knack for big plays that came from his understanding what the entire defense was doing and when to take a risk.
According to Miller, Phillips is most like Chung.
“He’s that more in-the-box safety, more of an enforcer,” said Miller. “He’s a good tackler, he can hit but he’s not in that vein of a centerfield/cover-ground kind of safety. He’s a closer-to-the-line-of-scrimmage guy. You’d probably want him more on a tight end or a back out of the back field. He’s got decent speed – he’s not a burner – but he’s certainly capable in the pass game of covering those kinds of guys.”
If you’re wondering whether Phillips’ backstory makes him easy to root for, it does.
“All you need to know is he was cut eight times by the Chargers,” said Miller. “Brought him back, cut him, brought him back, cut him - literally eight times before he stuck. He never gave up. Then, in 2018 he just blew up. He got a chance to play and had a great season and was recognized at the end of the year. He’s going to be missed by teammates and the media."
And here's Phillips' defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley:
"He can play strong safety, free safety, dime [linebacker] and nickel [linebacker] for us, and we'd feel extremely comfortable if he was in any of those positions,” Bradley said in 2018.
"So that intelligence, he's got a football IQ that is … he's just one of the most elite guys in that area that I've ever been around."