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Is Jacob Phillips the future of the linebacker corps?

No longer a rookie, how does he fit into the defense’s plans?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The group that needs the most attention this off-season is arguably the linebacker position.

Free agents that may depart include starters B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith plus a pair of backups in Tae Davis and Elijah Lee. The only active linebackers that remain are Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki and Jacob Phillips. What will happen to this unit before training camp?

Smith might be re-signed - Goodson probably not. Davis and Lee were special teams demons and could be signed again at a budget price for specifically that purpose. Takitaki and Wilson don’t seem to be starter material and should settle into role players.

Then there’s Jacob Phillips. The big question is: is he ready to become a Browns starting linebacker?

Straight outta Nashville

Phillips was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. He went to East Nashville Magnet High School, was a star athlete and found his calling with the game of football. He had 245 tackles as a two-year starter on the varsity and averaged 12.3 tackles per game.

Jacob Phillips at East Nashville High School

As a senior, he was named Tennessean All-Midstate First-Team, a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award (given to the nation’s top high school linebacker), a finalist for the Tennessean’s TitanUp Football Player-of-the-Year Award, was selected to play in the U.S. Army All-American game, was ranked as a five-star recruit by Rivals.com, was ranked nationally as the 29th best football player, and finally was named Tennessee’s Mr. Football in Class 3A.

Phillips (6’-3”, 229 pounds) had recruiters lined up into his parent’s driveway, along the sidewalk and descending down the street. He chose to play at Oklahoma in mid-October of his senior year.

The LSU Tigers had ranked Murfreesboro, Tennessee safety JaCoby Stevens and Phillips Number 1 and 2 on their defensive wish list. Yes, two fellow Tennesseans. Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron is known as a very good recruiter, but to work the dirty deed it was the efforts of LSU GM Austin Thomas who pulled this one off.

In January, LSU invited Phillips and his parents Derrick and Tami Phillips for an official visit even though Phillips had verbally committed to Oklahoma. Thomas never heard a word back. Then one night, the phone rang while Thomas was already in bed. It was Phillips trying to arrange a visit. It seems that Stevens, who had committed to LSU in September, had been filling Phillips’ ear about LSU and that he should at least go down to Louisiana and take a look.

The difference it appears, is that Derrick and Tami loved Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Maybe it was that Cajun cooking. Perhaps it was the Creole culture and atmosphere. Their Christian beliefs may have been the edge. It could be the school itself; or the way that defensive coordinator Dave Aranda explained to Phillips how they use their linebackers there. Or could it have been how Thomas reached out to the parents and made them feel comfortable with assurances that their son would be taken care of. Perhaps it was the beignets?

Whatever the reasons, three days after visiting Louisiana, Phillips flipped his commitment to LSU. The move was viewed as the most critical event in the 2017 recruiting cycle; and Phillips was in the same group with Patrick Queen who was taken in the first-round of the 2020 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens. Safety Stevens will enter the NFL draft this year and was invited to the Senior Bowl.

Geaux Tigers!

Louisiana is not like the rest of the nation. Their food is spicy. Those folks drive like maniacs at all times. There are only two seasons: hot and hot-er. Natives still speak with a Cajun French dialect. There is a bottle of hot sauce on every table just like salt and pepper. One of the main instruments played in Zydeco music is a washboard. Ground up sassafras leaves are used to season dishes such as gumbo. Cheese grits are served with every meal. So is alcohol.

From just a physical stature standpoint, Phillips appeared NFL-ready even as a freshman. He had already garnered so many accolades in his senior year of high school and was a mature young man. And a pure leader.

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

He played in all 12 games as a freshman at LSU but did not start. He had 18 tackles with a half sack and shined on special teams. The Tigers played in the Citrus Bowl that year. As a sophomore, Phillips’ role began to shift. He started 11 of 12 games and finished second on the team in tackles with 87. Add to that one sack, one interception for a touchdown, plus 5.5 tackles for loss.

Phillips began his junior year as one of the starting ILB’s in LSU’s 3-4 defensive alignment. He promptly led the Tigers’ defense in tackles with 113 and added 7.5 tackles for loss with a single sack. Nationally, he ranked 23rd in total tackles just behind Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons and Jordyn Brooks from Texas Tech - two linebackers who were taken in the first-round of the 2020 NFL draft.

LSU won the National Championship. After the season, Phillips announced that he would forgo his senior year and declared for the NFL draft. At the time, he was a top linebacker and the leading tackler for one of the nation’s best college defenses.

He was selected by the Browns in the 2020 NFL draft in the third-round; the second of two third rounders after Cleveland selected DT Jordan Elliott in the same round. His fellow LSU teammate Grant Delpit was chosen in the second-round of the same draft class. It would mark the second year in a row that the Browns took a linebacker in the third-round as Takitaki was hand-picked in the 2019 draft.

NFL bound in a 2020 kinda year

Andrew Berry was hired as the new GM for Cleveland. He earmarked four groups that needed the most improvement: offensive line, tight end, safety and linebacker. Plus, there wasn’t a fullback on the roster and with a strong rushing attack, Berry traded with Denver to get Andy Janovich and signed Johnny Stanton for competition.

With the linebacker corps, Berry ousted Christian Kirksey and Adarius Taylor, plus allowed the club’s leading tackler Joe Schobert to test the free agent waters who ultimately signed with Jacksonville. Genard Avery was the other backer and was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for a fourth-round pick. That left rookies Wilson and Takitaki as the only linebackers on the active roster.

Then Berry signed B.J. Goodson, a nomad from the Green Bay Packers, to a free agent contract just days into free agency. In all, Berry signed 12 free agents in a 25-day span.

Indianapolis Colts v Cleveland Browns Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Next up was the draft with Phillips’ name called on the second day. After the draft had concluded, undrafted free agent Solomon Ajayi was signed, Tae Davis and Elijah Lee were picked up off waivers, Jermaine Grace was inked to a reserve/futures contract and former Super Bowl MVP outside backer Malcolm Smith was added as a veteran presence.

Which all meant that Phillips had a ton of veteran players around to tutor and assist him at the pro level. He had played at a high-level in the powerful SEC against tough opponents. LSU also had one of the nation’s top defenses.

The only problem was that pandemic thingy in his rookie campaign. Suddenly, zero OTA’s, limited practices, no pre-season games to gauge his ascension and grasp of the playbook, and virtual meetings.

Being a rookie in the NFL is no joke. There is a lot to absorb and try to figure out on the fly during live action situations. Plus the realization that just because he was taken in the third-round does not prohibit his chances of becoming a starter. Goodson was a fourth-round pick. Smith a seventh-rounder. Wilson was called in the fifth. The departed Schobert was also taken in Round 4 - so being a mid-round selection is about par for opportunity to occur.

Learning curve

Phillips’ list of lessons learned as a rookie is extensive.

In addition to the typical learning curve all first-year players experience in the pros, Phillips battled through several injuries that kept him off the field in spurts of the first half of the year. But his absences didn’t prevent him from continuing to grow as a linebacker and becoming an asset for one of the Browns’ youngest position groups on the team.

And DC Joe Woods began to use him more as the season moved along as Phillips became more aware of the professional game’s speed and complexity; plus the amount of film study needed to learn about opponents and their tendencies. Phillips was one thing: willing to learn. Oh yeh, he was one other thing: fast.

Cleveland Browns v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

He ended up playing in nine games and started three. Phillips had 25 tackles, one tackle for loss, one QB hit, one pass defense, and people starting to ask, “Who is that number 50?” He also lost an opportunity to play due to COVID in Week 16 against the New York Jets along with four receivers, a starting safety and a backup tight end.

And then there is the fact that Woods plays a lot of 4-2-5 instead of his traditional 4-3. Plus, the two linebackers aren’t always linebackers in that one can be a larger safety instead. This means a traditional ILB is actually a glorified SAM backer shifted over some. So, a true MIKE isn’t necessarily a priority.

The good news is that Phillips is not built like a typical middle linebacker. He has the height at 6’-3”, but is light at 229 pounds instead of the standard beefier 250-plus. He ran a 4.66 40 at the combine and is an every down player that doesn’t need to come off during passing downs.

Phillips learned from the veterans and also his experiences on a good college team in a tough conference. Now, he is ready to forge his own path.

So, here’s Phillips. The big question is: why wouldn’t he be ready to become the Browns next starting linebacker?