Even though I knew I was going to write a feature about Adrian Phillips the moment his Pro Bowl selection was announced, I’ve had a hard time getting it started. Why? Because I wanted to come up with a creative or amusing opening and, no matter what I came up with, it felt like he deserved more in so many ways.
With that in mind, I decided to start with the following thoughts and build from there:
Thought #1: I was wrong about Adrian Phillips. (And I wasn’t the only one.)
Thought #2: Adrian Phillips is the glue that holds the Chargers together when things seem to be at their worst.
First and foremost: I was wrong about Adrian Phillips. (And I wasn’t the only one.)
I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong about Adrian Phillips. Boy, was I wrong.
To put it bluntly, I just didn’t think he was a very good football player. I mocked the coaches when they raved about exploits in practice that never seemed to translate to game action. I rolled my eyes when they gushed about how he shined in the film room. Most of all, I wondered what they were thinking when they threw their 5’10”, 210-pound safety to the wolves as a linebacker during the 2017 season.
I was critical of Phillips’ play and was convinced the offseason additions of Jaylen Watkins, Derwin James, Kyzir White and Tony Brown would eventually conspire to cost him his roster spot. It just seemed inevitable with the focus the team was placing on bigger, faster versions of Phillips.
Like I said, I was wrong. And I wasn’t the only one…
Despite posting respectable numbers in his four-year career at Texas, Adrian was not among the 18 safeties selected in the 2014 NFL draft. In fact, he wasn’t even held in high enough regard to be among the 16 safeties signed as priority undrafted free agents immediately following the draft. Even the Chargers, who were thin at the position, didn’t sign him until almost a full month had passed after the draft. He was, for lack of a better word, an afterthought.
Even the Chargers weren’t terribly sure of what they had. From the time he signed with the team in June of 2014, through the end of the 2015 regular season, the young safety appeared on the Chargers translation report an astounding 20 times, including being waived or released eight times in his first two full seasons in the league.
Five years later, only eight of the 34 safeties drafted and/or signed ahead of Phillips in 2014 remain on NFL rosters. Of those players, only Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is still playing safety at a reasonably high level. Jimmie Ward is a nickel corner, Deone Buchannon was moved to linebacker and is being phased out in Arizona, and Terrence Brooks is a backup defensive back. Meanwhile, Adrian is playing starter snaps on defense, leads the league in special teams’ tackles, and is three weeks removed from covering Tyreek Hill one-on-one in the Chargers’ win in Kansas City (more on that later).
To his credit, Adrian continues to prove his doubters wrong each and every time he steps foot on an NFL field.
Adrian Phillips is glue that holds the Chargers defense together when things are at their worst.
Just take a second to consider the season Adrian Phillips has had for the Chargers.
From a statistical standpoint, he leads the NFL in special teams’ tackles (17). He’s also tied for second on the team in passes broken up (10), third in defensive tackles (77) and is allowing a miniscule 36.6% completion percentage (15/44) and a 44.8 quarterback rating on passes thrown into his coverage area. He covers running backs, tight ends and wide receivers one-on-one and always seems to be at the bottom of the pile in run support. He is literally everywhere and does everything for this defense.
Not impressed? Let’s look at some of his individual assignments and exploits over the course of his breakout season:
· Key interception in Buffalo to help seal that win;
· Won the Tennessee game with a pass break up in the end zone;
· Three key third down stops vs. Tennessee;
· Covered Jared Cook, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and John Brown one-on-one throughout the season;
· Was the primary spy on Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson;
· Had two tackles for loss vs. Lamar Jackson week 16;
· Forced a game changing fumble week 17 in Denver.
The Chargers have been faced with several key moments and/or decisions during the course of the season and Adrian has stepped up through all of them.
It was Phillips who stepped up when the defense was struggling to defend the middle of the field through the first four weeks. He also took on an expanded role when Denzel Perryman was lost for the season. Of course, Adrian also famously closed out the Tennessee game, played a huge role in containing Lamar Jackson week 16, erased Tyreek Hill in KC, and shouldered the load in Denver after Jatavis Brown was lost for the season.
Even with all of that, there may not be a better example of what Phillips has meant to the Chargers defense than the how much more efficient they’ve been on third down since he essentially became a starter in week 5. Through the first four games of the season, Adrian Phillips averaged 16 defensive snaps per game and the defense allowed opposing offenses to convert 46.8% of their third down opportunities. Through the next 12 games, the defense allowed a paltry 36.5% third down conversion rate with Adrian playing 50.25 snaps per game.
The bottom line is this: Adrian Phillips earned his Pro Bowl nod. He earned it with his defensive play as much as he did with his work on special teams, but even more than that, he earned it through determination, resilience and an unwavering work ethic. Adrian’s versatility, selflessness and intelligence have made him one of the more indispensable players on the Chargers roster and he ranks right up there with Derwin James and Joey Bosa on the list of must-watch Chargers defenders each and every week.
So, I’ll leave you with this: prepare for this weekend’s Wild Card game with a little Adrian Phillips film study. For starters, it’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face. But more importantly than that, it will serve as a nice reminder that sometimes, being wrong about a player can be a very good thing.
Congratulations on your Pro Bowl selection, Adrian. You’ve earned it.