Miami DE Jaelan Phillips offers intrigue, potential as NFL draft’s boom or bust prospect

Detroit Free Press

He is the biggest boom-bust prospect in this year’s NFL draft, but Miami (Fla.) defensive end Jaelan Phillips wants NFL teams to know their hand-wringing is for naught.

“Everybody’s path to success isn’t linear at all,” Phillips said last month at Miami’s pro day. “There’s ups and downs and I think all of that really just gave me a better look at everything. Like, it made me have this chip on my shoulder and gave me a deeper appreciation of what the game is and what it brings to me. And so for me, I never lost my passion with football, I just needed a little kick in the butt. A little kick in the butt, for sure.”

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Phillips got his kick in the butt when he spent the 2019 season away from football, and it’s that hiatus — coupled with a troubling injury history — that has NFL teams debating whether the draft’s most talented pass rusher is worthy of a first-round pick.

The nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2017, per 247Sports, Phillips had a string of injuries at UCLA that caused him to temporarily retire from football.

He missed time as a freshman with sprains to both ankles, then needed two surgeries before his sophomore season to fix a wrist he injured in a moped accident.

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When Phillips suffered his third brain injury in October of 2018, he left football and found his way into the music industry. The grandson of a pianist, Phillips spent a year producing and making music, and eventually enrolled in Miami’s prestigious Frost School of Music.

He told 247Sports during the season that he had a “nagging feeling” during his time away from football that something was missing with his new life, and last year he re-joined the Hurricanes football program and had a dominant eight-sack season (in 10 games) while many other top prospects opted out of playing.

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Normally, a pass rusher of Phillips’ caliber would warrant a top-five pick — at least one edge rusher has gone in the top five every year since 2012 — and would be of interest to the Detroit Lions at No. 7, if he slipped that far.

But COVID restrictions prevented NFL teams from hosting prospects on top-30 pre-draft visits this year and having extended meetings with them in-person, leaving more uncertainties than usual with Phillips’ personal and medical evaluations and making him what NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah called Phillips the biggest “wild card” of the draft.

“Jaelan Phillips is always going to be dependent on where teams are with him, the stuff off the field, because on the field he’s a top-10 pick,” Jeremiah said. “So that will determine where he goes. He’s got a wide range of where he could come off the board.”

Phillips wowed at his pro day, running a sub-4.6-second 40-yard dash at 6 feet 5 and 260 pounds, and after he tried to dispel fears that music, not football, is his true love.

“Obviously, I love music, but I love football more,” he said, pointing to before-and-after pictures of when he came to Miami and how he transformed his body after slimming down to 218 pounds in his year away from football.

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“What I love most about football is just that competitiveness. I have a desire to be excellent at everything I do, and for me, I feel like it’s my God-given talent to go out there on that football field and just perform and just dominate. And so for me, the feeling of making a sack or getting a TFL and just winning games, it’s like an out-of-body experience. There’s nothing like it.”

Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye and Phillips’ Miami teammate, Greg Rousseau, are among the other top prospects in what is generally regarded as a down year for defensive linemen.

Neither comes with Phillips’ upside nor risk, though Phillips said that risk won’t stop him from reaching his massive potential.

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“I mean, look, man, the proof is in the pudding,” he said. “I think that my play on the field obviously showed that I didn’t miss a game, didn’t miss a workout, didn’t miss anything. If you watch the pro day, you saw it, that wrist is still working and obviously I’m healthy. I don’t think it’s a risk at all. I think we play a dangerous and violent game so obviously people get hurt but I wouldn’t be here today if I was a risk. So I think that I’m a guy who does all the right things, does all the extra things to make sure my body’s on point and I truly believe if you take care of your body, your body will take care of you so that’s kind of how I’ve been living for the last couple years.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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