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The Miami Dolphins have a master plan in mind for Jaelan Phillips, the former University of Miami standout the team selected with the 18th pick in the 2021 NFL draft, and that vision starts with the position unit he’s been assigned to during rookie camp.
The Dolphins have listed the 6-foot-6, 260-pounder as a linebacker, not a defensive end.
Considering the plan is to play Phillips all over the front seven — and he spent his early college years at UCLA playing outside linebacker — the position assignment makes sense, and should put Phillips in position to play 800-plus snaps a season.
“When you’re standing up, it’s more advantageous being able to see everything, like trying to take a snapshot of what’s going on,” Phillips said at the conclusion of Saturday’s practice. “Then, when you’re in the three-point [hand in the ground], obviously you’re having more leverage because you’re coming low to high. But yeah, having played both, I’m definitely comfortable doing whatever I need to do.”
What Miami need Phillips to do is become an impactful pass rusher, consistently hunt down quarterbacks and help the Dolphins build on last year’s 41 sacks, which were mainly a product of heavy blitzes from linebackers.
While the Dolphins’ position listing isn’t always accurate — just ask Malcolm Perry, a 2020 seventh-round pick who was listed as a running back all season despite playing receiver all year — it does provide a few hints about the coaching staff’s vision for Phillips.
Instead of having him work as a pure defensive end, moving up and down the defensive line like Emmanuel Ogbah and Christian Wilkins do, Miami seems to be intent on having Phillips replace Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson as an edge player on its 3-4 hybrid defense.
He’ll be the hybrid element that makes it difficult to determine if the Dolphins are in a four-man or three-man front.
Miami moved on from both veterans, releasing Van Noy, who returned to the Patriots, and trading Lawson to the Houston Texans in the transaction that brought Miami linebacker Benardrick McKinney.
Even though coach Brian Flores has talked about McKinney playing multiple roles, similar to how Miami utilizes Andrew Van Ginkel and Vince Beigel, adding Phillips to the linebacker mix should beef up the pass rushing, and provides Phillips opportunity to become a day-one starter because of his skill set.
“The one thing when you watch him play, you would never question his passion and effort,” General Manager Chris Grier said. “He plays 100 miles per hour and he’s got a tremendous motor and effort. You can tell football is very important to him.
“He fits what we’re looking for in terms of everything — toughness, effort, competitiveness and the production on the field.”
Phillips was the favorite pass-rushing prospect for a number of draft experts, including ESPN’s Louis Riddick and NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks, two I respect highly.
“If he had a clean bill of health he’d be a top-10 pick,” one NFC executive said before the draft.
But teams were concerned about lingering injuries from a car accident Phillips had during his UCLA days, which kept him from playing the 2019 season, and a series of concussions that kept him from being medically cleared to play for the Bruins.
He transferred to Miami before the 2020 season to give college football and his NFL aspirations one last shot, and that gamble paid off.
Even more impressive than Phillips’ season with UM, where he produced 45 tackles (15.5 for loss) eight sacks and one interception, was his Pro Day workout and position drills, which a coach in attendance described as “phenomenal.”
Phillips posted 40-yard dash time of 4.56, which is faster than most tailbacks and tight ends. He had a 36-inch vertical jump, a 10-5 broad jump, a 4.12 shuttle time, and bench pressed 21 reps of 225 pounds.
“He was moving like a cheetah. His bend was eye-opening,” the coach said, describing how the drill where Phillips ran a figure eight around two circles and picked up a tennis ball that had been thrown to the ground. “Everyone left that workout buzzing about Phillips.”
Flores attended, and seeing as how Phillips has the frame that could make him effective in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme, and the movement skills of a linebacker, the Dolphins felt he could be the player that turns the volume up on the team’s pass rushing.
No matter where he lines up before the snap, Phillips is just focused on doing what’s required of him.
“This journey has been incredible and I’m so blessed to even be in this position,” Phillips said. “Now is definitely far from the time to rest. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, so that’s what I’m doing. Just every day trying to get better and being where my feet are.”