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NFL Draft: The one edge rusher the 49ers should take a gamble on

There are a few edge rushers in this class that are intriguing, but there are none better than Miami’s Jaelan Phillips.

Miami Hurricanes head into bye knowing true test in No. 1 Clemson is on the other side Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

During the NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers are expected to draft a pass rusher. While Dee Ford’s contract is complicated, Ford is an unknown headed into 2021. If that’s the case, the Niners can’t count on Ford giving the defense production.

You can never have enough pass rushers, as the 49ers found out this past season. San Francisco, like every other team in the NFL, could stand to add another pass rusher. In NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah’s recent mock draft, he had five edge rushers going in the first round. In order, they were Miami’s Gregory Rousseau, Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Miami’s Jaelan Phillips, Oklahoma’s Ronnie Perkins, and Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari.

To me, one of these is unlike the other. You can tell if a pass rusher knows how to rush the quarterback within a handful of reps. It’s not about being blown away within ten plays. It’s more about how each rep looks during those ten plays.

Pick a side!

As you watch most of the edge rushers in this draft class, including the aforementioned names above, they leave a lot to be desired. If you’ve ever attended a football practice, you can’t watch a pass-rushing drill without a defensive line coach screaming, “pick a side!” By that, the coach is telling his pass rusher to pick either a half or third of the offensive lineman he’s rushing against.

There are several reasons for picking a side when going against a lineman, but the main one is that it gives him less of your body to engage. Picking a half or third of a player also takes away his strength while allowing you to get to the lineman’s hip. If you can get hip to hip, you’re going to win a lot as a pass rusher.

Football is a game of staying square. That applies in the trenches and on the perimeter. You’ll see below the benefit of attacking a half-man and how that forces an offensive tackle to open his hips. From there, the pass rusher can layer moves and win both inside and out.

Too often, players in this year’s draft class are running head-on into an offensive tackle. You’ll see that rep after rep. That’s not what wins in the NFL. Sure, there might be a splash play here or there, but if you can’t win consistently in college, the odds of that changing at the next level are slim.

Bet on the best

When I watch Jaelan Phillips, I see a pass rusher with a plan. Phillips has a go-to move, both inside and out, but he also adds in counters off his go-to moves. It helps that Phillips has otherwordly athleticism, but if you can’t win with your hands, you won’t last long in the NFL. Phillips won a lot during 2020:

PFF had Phillips in the 90th percentile or better for pass-rush win rate, pass-rush grade, and run-stop grade. Phillips had a true pass grade that was above the 80th percentile.

Phillips rushes the passer by marrying his hands with his lower body, as you could see in the clips above. Everything comes together, and that’s why he won so often. If you only watch Phillips’s lower half, you’d think he was catching passes and releasing off the line of scrimmage. Then you see what Phillips is doing up top, and it wasn’t often that he didn’t make the first contact with the offensive tackle.

When you can win with your hands, athleticism, and counters, you’re going to be difficult to stop. The beauty of Phillips’s game is that his pass-rush wins translate to the running game. Unlike some of the other top edge rushers in this class, Phillips actually tries against the run. You’ll notice he rarely gets washed out or loses his gap. Most of the time, Phillips gets his hips in his desired gap. That’s a win. As you noticed in the clip above, when Phillips bull-rushed the offensive tackle, power isn’t an issue. When Phillips strikes, you feel it and usually end up going backward.

Sound, disciplined run defender

In today’s NFL, run defense tends to be an afterthought. The Chiefs and the Bills finished in the bottom quartile of the NFL in defensive rushing success rate, yet both teams made the AFC Championship. The Packers fell into the same quartile.

Run defense is more about timely stops. To ensure timely stops, your players have to be disciplined. I mentioned how getting your hips in your designated gap is a way to tell if a run defender does his job. The play below is why process>results when talking about prospects. Phillips gets his hand on the tight end first— notice Phillips’ hand placement and how they’re inside —then cross the tight ends face and make the tackle.

The ball-carrier gets the first down, but there’s an identical play like this later in the game where Phillips makes the stop on 2nd & 3. He’s a nuisance and was disruptive in each game that I saw.

One of the biggest compliments an offense can pay to a player is leaving him unblocked. I know that sounds silly, but many coaches will say, “if we can’t block him, then we won’t.” Plenty of teams in the ACC used this theory against Phillips, whether that’s on a jet sweep towards him or some bootleg action away. Each team that tried to do this paid for it.

When a defender is unblocked, their first instincts are to bolt upfield and get after the quarterback. Time after time, Phillips gets to his landmark — heel depth of the lineman — to assess what the offense is doing and then reacts. This was a big reason why Phillips finished the season with 15.5 tackles for loss.

Simply put, Phillips rarely “takes the cheese” that the offense puts in front of him and does his job.

‘Wow’ factor

If you’re taking an edge rusher in the top-50 picks, he better not just win but come with some type of ‘wow’ factor. That could come via his strength, athleticism, pure speed, or technical work. In Phillips’s case, he blends each of those traits together. He has reportedly been timed running a 4.6 40-yard dash at over 260 pounds and was running with the skill players at UCLA.

There were two plays back-to-back against Duke that fit the description of possessing a ‘wow’ factor. Coincidentally enough, Phillips used the same arm-over move in each play. He’s the edge rusher to our left below. You’ll notice his footwork resembles the same footwork of a basketball player trying to cross a defender over.

You’ll also see how Phillips not only “picks a side,” but he “gets skinny” by slighting turning his shoulders as he beats the offensive tackle. That gives the tackle next to nothing as far as latching on to Phillips’s surface area. Good luck.

On the next play, Phillips kicks inside. I’m not sure he ever lost a rep against a guard as a pass rusher in the handful of games that I saw. Oftentimes, the reps were ugly and not for Phillips.

Before you complain about the competition level, Phillips did the same against Clemson and sacked Trevor Lawrence.

Buyer beware

Phillips didn’t play football in 2019 after only playing four games with UCLA in 2018. He medically retired due to head and wrist injuries after being hit by a car while riding his scooter at UCLA. That’s why he’s not being talked about as a top-10 prospect. Phillips eventually retired after suffering a concussion in a game during the ‘18 season as a Bruin.

Medical re-checks will determine how high or low Phillps is drafted this year. There’s no running away from his injury history. The thought of losing a player to a concussion and all of a sudden you no longer have your top-pick because of this could scare teams away.

Outlook

Every draft pick is a gamble. I’m betting on talent. I’m betting on a guy who showed he can win in multiple ways and has two go-to pass rush moves. Off those moves, Phillips has a nasty spin move:

If not for the injuries, Phillips would be a shoo-in to go in the top-10 of this draft. I don’t think there are ten players better than Phillips in this draft class. I’m not so sure there are five.

Knowing that no pick is too high for a player of Phillips’ caliber. He has everything you’re looking for in a pass rusher, and we haven’t even talked about how Phillips is one of those players who “plays with his hair on fire” each snap. Once a quarter, you’ll see him chasing down a player from the other side of the field. Add in that he’s celebrating and having fun with his teammates after each play, and there isn’t anything on the field Phillips does that makes you think he won’t be the best defensive player in this class.

If you’re in the market for a pass rusher, you won’t find one better than Phillips this year.