The Miami Dolphins whiffed on a handful of first-round defensive ends over the last decade, but Jaelan Phillips is well on his way to derailing that trend.
Drafted No. 18 overall in 2021, Phillips hit the ground running with 8.5 sacks, a rookie team record, to go with 42 tackles and 16 quarterback hits.
Phillips had a stretch of six sacks in three games and the question quickly became — where could his ceiling be?
“Jaelan is a guy that wants to be great and wants to do everything perfect,” defensive coordinator Josh Boyer said earlier this offseason. “I think he’s finding that happy balance of work-failure to bring the best out of himself. A couple of pounds here and there, it’s more nutrition-based than it is football or playing-based.”
Boyer is echoing what most have felt about Phillips for some time, the talent is there — but what will he do with it?
The second-year pro’s biggest critic is himself, saying he is playing with a chip on his shoulder after a rookie season that didn’t meet his standards.
“I’m really critical of myself and I have a lot of high aspirations and I want to do everything I can to help the team,” Phillips said during the offseason. “So for me, not being able to come in every down...that’s something where I took it on myself where I’m going to work on this.
“So the sacks were nice, but ultimately it’s more than just sacks. It’s more than just production. It’s about how you fit into the defense and what you are doing to contribute to the team “
When looking ahead to the sophomore season, a better diet and a hungry Phillips are certainly great signs, but there is one factor we seem to overlook when discussing the former first-round pick.
The 2022 season will be the first time Phillips plays in the same system, and for the same defensive coordinator, in back-to-back years since his sophomore season at UCLA.
He spent two years with the Bruins, earning 4.5 sacks across 10 games. He saw limited action as he dealt with concussions and ankle injuries. Ultimately, he had to retire from football after a car accident in his sophomore season.
Phillips decided to return to football and transferred to Miami but didn’t see any action in 2019 due to NCAA transfer rules. As a redshirt junior, after a year to refocus and study the system, he took off and earned All-America first team honors, along with All-ACC second team honors after starting 10 games and leading the team with 15.5 sacks.
Returning to the present, Phillips, even though he played in his rookie season, is in a familiar situation. He flashed the talent that made him a first-round pick and had some strong moments as a rookie.
However, he may have hit that rookie wall with no sacks in his final four games after taking advantage of some bad teams, including the Jets, Panthers and Giants.
In year two, after earning an opportunity to plant his roots and play 54 percent of snaps as a rookie, we will see just how far Phillips can ascend as a consistent threat, no matter how is lined up on the other side of the ball.