Adrian Phillips arrived in New England last March to help fortify a Patriots secondary that would be without Duron Harmon, who was traded to Detroit after seven seasons in Foxborough.
He did that. And he did so much more.
When the Patriots defense was hit by the opt-out losses of stalwarts Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung, Phillips help fill those voids as well.
Phillips was a new guy to the team, but he played like an old Patriots soul, somebody willing to do whatever was asked to make the team better.
He slipped into a hybrid role, playing linebacker and/or safety depending on the game plan and/or situation.
With six years of experience (all with the Chargers), Phillips was able to adapt and excel in New England’s complicated schemes.
“He’s very team-oriented, good communicator, understands concepts and understands multiple positions and roles within the defense and within the special teams units,” coach Bill Belichick said in January.
Phillips at times served as an undersized linebacker, planted in the middle of the defense and sticking his nose where no 5-foot-11-inch, 210-pound man has a right to be. Despite giving up a lot of mass, Phillips was able to shed behemoth blockers and find the ball consistently. He collected a team-high (and career-high) 107 total tackles, including seven for losses.
He also possesses the athleticism to play in coverage, picking off a pair of passes. Phillips is on the books for one more season at $3 million, making him one of the best bargains in the NFL.
“I’m glad we have him and I’m excited to continue to work with him,” Belichick said. “He has helped us a lot this year and I think he will continue to. He’s been really a pleasure to work with.”
A look at the current state of the secondary and what predraft moves the Patriots could explore this offseason.
The 2020 Patriots
Safeties: Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks; cornerbacks: Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, Myles Bryant, Joejuan Williams, Michael Jackson, D’Angelo Ross, Dee Virgin.
▪ Devin McCourty: The unquestioned player-leader of this team both on the field and in the locker room; few players in any sport wear the captain’s label better. He has seen it all, can play it all, and still is producing at a high level heading into his 12th season in New England.
▪ Dugger: The club’s top pick flashed plenty of potential during his rookie campaign. He’s a fluid 6-2, 220-pounder who can cover and play near the box. Dugger delivered some teeth-rattling hits.
▪ Brooks: A free agent, he was a valuable kicking-game contributor and depth piece on the back end the last two seasons, but his defensive snaps dwindled in 2020 as Dugger developed.
▪ Gilmore: Put together another tremendous season until suffering a torn quadriceps in Week 15. The narrative that his game slipped is a false one. He’s still among the elite players at his position. He’s due approximately $7 million in salary and bonuses for 2021, and some tinkering with that number seems inevitable. And by tinkering, we mean another bump in pay.
▪ J.C. Jackson: A restricted free agent, he is likely to get slapped with a first-round tender. He is a ball hawk (nine picks in 2020) and few defend the long ball better. An in-season extension is a distinct possibility.
▪ Jones: One of the better slot corners in the league, he gets better every season. Like many on this list, he can shift seamlessly to safety when needed.
▪ Jason McCourty: If he wants to play a 13th season, the Patriots will be interested. Split his snaps between corner and safety in 2020.
▪ Bryant: Brought in to compete at corner, the undrafted rookie quickly showed he could play anywhere in the secondary. His roles will continue to grow.
▪ Williams: Has played corner and safety as a depth piece while contributing mainly on special teams his first two seasons. This will be a critical offseason and season for the 2019 second-rounder.
▪ Michael Jackson: He had a strong camp but was caught in a numbers crunch before being brought back late in the season. Could return and compete for a job.
▪ Ross: With two seasons in the program (the majority on the practice squad), he could be poised for a major jump on the depth chart.
▪ Virgin: An exclusive-rights free agent, he was signed for Week 17 but didn’t dress. He’ll likely compete for a job in camp.
The versatile and valuable veteran has indicated he’d like to continue his career. Has more responsibilities, play to play and series to series, than any other Patriot, and getting to work with Dugger will benefit both.
The free agents
Safeties: Harmon, D.J. Swearinger; cornerbacks: Bashaud Breeland, Mike Hilton.
▪ Harmon: Knows the defense and wouldn’t break the bank, and New England hasn’t seen a closer this good since Jonathan Papelbon.
▪ Swearinger: Another solid veteran who wouldn’t command a ridiculous paycheck. Can play in space and close to the line.
▪ Breeland: Competent veteran backup would add depth and push some of the younger talent on the roster.
▪ Hilton: See Breeland above. Both players come from winning organizations (Kansas City, Pittsburgh), and that’s important.
The bottom line
With outstanding depth at safety and corner, the Patriots won’t likely be players for some of the big free agents at either position. Affordable depth veterans will be the order of the day. The contract statuses of Gilmore and J.C. Jackson bear watching, because if either or both leave, that changes the free agent philosophy significantly.