Written by Greg Boucher
After some masterful maneuvering by general manager Brandon Beane the Bills are now set to return all 22 offensive and defensive starters from last season’s AFC East Championship team, he even managed to retain a few key role players as well. In this era of football, when players often look to secure the best deal with the biggest dollars before entertaining the best situation for them it makes Beane’s job this offseason even more impressive. When you consider RT Darryl Williams and LB Matt Milano, two of the Bills highest rated free agents could have landed more money if they had opted to play elsewhere but they chose to take less to stay in Buffalo and be part of this Superbowl run. That is a testament to what McDermott and Beane are building in Buffalo, there is no greater compliment to a Head Coach and a GM then when players are willing to take less money to be part of a team.
For the first time, perhaps in franchise history the Bills are heading into April’s draft without a glaring hole to fill, putting them in unfamiliar territory under the McDermott regime. Sure, there are some areas in need of an upgrade and an infusion of young talent but as the roster is currently built there is no one who is projected to be part of the starting lineup that would serve as a liability. This is a dream scenario for general managers, given the opportunity to truly draft the “Best Player Available” to add talent wherever you see fit, to take a risk on a player or if you are so inclined, go ahead and grab that luxury piece that may not be needed but can add a ton of dimension. So, who might be one of the best players available when the Bills get on the clock with the 30th pick, someone who can upgrade a position, can be an infusion of talent and not only help the Bills now but be a building block for the future? Defensive End Jaelan Phillips is that guy.
Phillips road to the draft has not been a simple one, the former 5-star recruit and number 1 rated player overall in 2016 originally signed with UCLA but he was never able to get on track and live up to his immense potential. Injuries plagued his Bruin career, limiting him to just 10 games over two seasons. After an injury free high school career Phillips sprained both ankles, severely injured his wrist in a moped accident and suffered multiple concussions which ultimately diminished his passion for football and led him to an early retirement from the sport at just 19 years old. Phillips left school, and struggled to find his way, he interned at his father’s law firm and dabbled in the music production business briefly during his time away from the sport, but he never found anything he was more passionate about than playing football. After several coaches reached out to him and sparked his desire to return to the game he once loved Phillips eventually found himself at the University of Miami, but his impact in the ACC would not be made immediately. After months away from the sport, living like an ordinary college aged kid his once stellar physique dwindled down, he lost his size and a step off of his speed, dropping under 220lbs. Phillips and coaches decided it was best for him to redshirt his junior year so that he could return to form. He spent the entire year taking in protein and eating right, training and building back mass until he had added nearly 40lbs. of muscle to his 6’5 frame.
Phillips’ lone season at Miami was the culmination of all his hard work and the showcase of his natural gifts as he was able to remain healthy and focused for the entire season, which led to a high level of production and the attention of NFL scouts. Phillips displayed his freakish talents play in and play out, registering 45 tackles/ 15.5 for a loss/ 8 sacks/ 1 INT in 2020. Aside from his impressive stat line what really jumps off about Phillips is his elite level of athleticism. He explodes off the snap and is quick to reset the line of scrimmage, he is an extremely twitchy athlete with rubber band bend in his hips which help him navigate the edge and evade offensive tackles on his way to the QB. He has exceptional length in his limbs, possessing the wingspan of a sasquatch which he utilizes well to create the needed separation to keep tackles from getting into his frame. Many college edge rushers have a ton of natural talent, they have the size, the speed and the strength but few have the football instincts, Phillips is the exception. He is the most natural pass rusher in this draft, he knows when to use his speed to win off the edge, he knows when to use his length and power to overwhelm blockers and he knows when to transition between the two to keep blockers off balance. Aside from his natural talents as a pass rusher he is a formidable presence capable of setting the edge. He has the great block recognition, he rarely gets reached or walled off, he collapses down blocks and meets pulling guards in the backfield, blowing up plays and causing chaos. He is also extremely mobile, he is capable of playing not only his half, but with his speed and length he is often able to chase plays down from the backside.
Phillips started out as my #3 Ranked Edge player, but as the evaluation process has expanded and players have held pro days and interviews, he is now my #1 rated Edge player, moving ahead of Michigan’s Kwitty Paye. Phillips proved why he was once one of the highest ranked recruits in the nation, running an eye-popping 40-yard dash of 4.56, a 4.12 shuttle, 36 inch vertical, while repping 225lbs 21 times. Testing numbers are only numbers until you have a player who has the ability to put those numbers to good use and though it was only a small sample size Phillips was able to do that throughout 2020 and has earned himself a 1st round spot.
The Bills are not desperate for edge players at the moment, they still have veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison under contract, there is still last seasons top pick AJ Epenesa who flashed last at times and the intriguing addition of freak athlete Efe Obada but in a pass heavy league one can never have enough pass rush options. Hughes and Addison are aging out and will be free agents after the season, Epenesa has a ton of upside but is not a sure thing yet and though he was successful in limited time Obada has never been an every down threat. An injection of talent and speed on the edge would be a welcomed addition, and one that could help others break out as well. I believe Phillips has the talent to impact this defense on day 1, especially on 3rd downs and obvious passing situations. Sure, we could look to add a CB if the value is there, I don’t believe Bills brass is content with Wallace and Jackson across from Tre White and we could certainly add an interior lineman to sure up the deficiencies there but the value may not be there at 30 as the top players look to be off the board by then. If Phillips is on the board at 30, there will only be one reason, his injury history. Concussions are not to be taken lightly and Phillips has already sustained 3 documented head injuries that forced him to leave the game all together and with each concussion a person is more susceptible to sustain another. Bills medical staff will have to do their due diligence when it comes to evaluating Phillips’ medical history and his readiness for the NFL but aside from concussions Phillips has also had other limiting injuries in the past and he may have the unfortunate makings of an “injury prone” player. There is no crystal ball that will tell a player’s future, god knows the Bills could have used that in the past (EJ Manuel & Arron Myabin) but since the Bills are in such a great position this year, the risk of taking a player at 30 who does not pan out due to injuries is not as devastating a blow as it would have been in years past. If Phillips slides to Buffalo, and he can remain healthy, he has all the potential to become the Bills next great pass rusher.