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The Jacob Phillips query

Is it time for the talented linebacker to step up?

NFL: JAN 09 Bengals at Browns Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Browns selected Jacob Phillips out of LSU in the third round in 2020, there were visions of a productive linebacker with speed making plays from sideline-to-sideline and perhaps leading the team in tackles.

So far, none of that has happened.

Phillips (6’-3”, 229 pounds) did take a detour along his journey - just not one that anyone would want.

In just his second year with Cleveland, he had a biceps injury just as the season was about to unfold when he reached out to grab a passing player. That placed him on IR to which he missed the first 12 games. After the bye week, he was activated in mid-December just in time for the Week 14 contest against Baltimore.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

He had played sparingly during his rookie season with an appearance in just nine games with three starts and was sidelined with knee issues. Phillips had 25 total tackles, one batted pass, one tackle for loss, one QB hit and well, not much else. It was a learning curve year for the young man. The second stanza was supposed to become his contributor year and yet, wasn’t to be.

That second year with the abbreviated year Phillips netted just 17 tackles and two tackles for loss.

And now, here is Year 3.

This is the season in which all NFL players are measured. You either get it by your third year or your begin online classes to get your real estate license.

One thing for certain: Phillips is completely healthy. His versatility is a huge plus in that he can play any of the three linebacker positions. His natural position is in the middle. There is good cop-bad cop with that. Seasoned veteran Anthony Walker is the starting MIKE. The flip side is that Walker has been sidelined with a groin injury for most of training camp.

Whether Walker will suit up on opening day is not certain just yet. What is certain is that Phillips is getting all of the first team defensive reps in the middle.

Being the man in the middle is his calling as he explained to the Akron Beacon Journal:

“Being a MIKE linebacker is something that I’ve always done throughout my whole life, and it’s the one job in the world that I would rather be doing than anything else. Everything that comes with it, it’s a lot. It’s more than meets the eye. It’s something that I’ve prepared for and I trained, and I’m ready for the moment if it’s there.”

Phillips played on 123 defensive snaps last year good enough for 10.98% of defensive plays. He also had 24 special teams snaps (5.65%).

Formations and bulking up

Another issue is the defensive formations. Even in the 4-3, the linebackers listed on the depth chart currently are Walker at MLB, JOK at weakside and Sione Takitaki outside in the SAM. This leaves minimal playing time for Phillips with the exception of snaps on special teams, which he excels at.

DC Joe Woods utilizes the 4-2-5 quite a bit. In this formation, sometimes one of the two linebackers employed is actually a safety such as Ronnie Harrison. The other linebacker is usually Walker. This formation alone makes it even more difficult for Phillips to see the field in defensive downs.

NFL: Cleveland Browns Training Camp Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports

One thing very noticeable about Phillips in this year’s camp is the fact that he has bulked-up quite a bit. The biceps injury took away some considerable strength that was lost. During the off-season, he got with the trainers and remained in the area. The result was added muscle to his lean frame. Not to mention he is now on a plant-based diet.

The added weight makes him appear beefier which leans towards an imposing physique. Basically, he has re-built his body. But the added bulk has not affected his speed. What it should do is increase his stamina during games plus the hope that his tackling abilities will provide quite a bit more punch.

And with a new body has come a new sense of dedication to the game even if he is still just 23-years old. Head coach Kevin Stefanski noticed:

“(Phillips) was in every meeting. That’s not always the case with guys who are injured and going to be out for a long time. He was in every meeting and knows exactly what we’re doing. To play that MIKE linebacker role, you have to know what you’re doing inside and out because you’re directing traffic oftentimes. I think Jacob is a student of this game, and I think (linebacker) Coach (Jason) Tarver does a great job with him, so that he can really dive into this game and some of the different things that we do off of the scheme.”

Going forward

Coming out of high school, Phillips was named Tennessee Mr. Football, was a five-star recruit with letters from just about every D-1 powerhouse plus played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. At LSU, he led the defense in tackles (113) his final year and was on a National Championship roster.

These were his expectations when the Browns drafted him. Phillips was used to reaching the pinnacle at every level he competed in.

The Browns coaching staff loves him and his attitude with visions of pairing him with JOK on the field for four downs. He has the speed, football instincts plus is hungry to prove he belongs with the starting defense instead of running down punt returners.

Coach Tarver stated:

“We’ve been really proud of Jacob because of how he’s built his body. He has gained weight, and he’s extremely powerful right now and extremely fast. He’s learned how he’s needed to stretch, and he’s always in doing extra whatever it is — stretching, the regeneration stuff we do, being first. Every thought is, ‘I have to get my body right so I can perform one day at a time.’”

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

Phillips is able to read the play promptly and reacts to running plays very quickly. And with the running quarterbacks that currently reside in the AFC North such as Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow, a sideline-to-sideline guy is not needed - but necessary.

So far in preseason, Phillips has had only one tackle without any other stats.

There are several big questions regarding Phillips.

Can he remain healthy for a full season? Will he be able to replace Walker at some point? Can he increase his defensive snaps? Will the 4-2-5 eliminate one of those positions he plays or does he fill that role?

“This is a big, big year for me,” Phillips added. “I know when I’m healthy, I’m on the field, everything’s going to fall into place and I’m going to be able to show everybody in Cleveland the player I am.”

Everyone in Berea is ecstatic about the progress Phillips has made this off-season and in training camp. The added weight, the new diet and the film study has gotten him ready to perform at a high-level this year.

We as Browns fans want to see how that translates on the field, and will root for him every play.