Key to the Defense: Why 2016 Could Be the Year of Jordan Phillips

“What? Why?!”

Dolphins fans were a confused bunch when the team selected Oklahoma defensive tackle Jordan Phillips in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. The team had just signed Ndamukong Suh to a record breaking contract a month before, and it seemed unusual for them to use one of their most valuable resources on a player at the same position. However, the team displayed a clear commitment to selecting the best player available (which they would back out of in 2016) and had Phillips high on their draft board.

As a rookie, Phillips had inconsistent outings in limited showings, not playing substantial reps until late in the year due to the lingering anti-rookie mentality of Joe Philbin.

So, one of the most surprising picks in recent team history did not contribute instantly as voids opened up in other places on the defense thanks to the decision to supplement the defensive line in the second round. What were they thinking in Miami? Why didn’t they take a cornerback? Why didn’t they get an offensive lineman?

Place your questions aside for the mean time; it is very likely that Jordan Phillips is actually the key for the Dolphins’ defense in 2016.

Introduction & State of the Unit:

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(Photo: Zimbio)

The Miami Dolphins were supposed to have one of the NFL’s most feared defensive lines in 2015. Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake headlined a group that featured impressive depth with Olivier Vernon, Earl Mitchell, Derrick Shelby, Terrence Fede and of course Jordan Phillips. However, the secondary was so poor that the Dolphins’ defensive line didn’t really have much of a chance to do damage on their own. Opponents had easy ways to victimize cornerbacks, epitomized by the words of Sammy Watkins. The Bills receiver stated after a game against the Dolphins that he knew exactly how to burn Brent Grimes and expressed sentiments that reflect the ease with which he viewed the assignment.

The Dolphins’ personnel progress on the defensive line was undone this offseason. The team rightfully decided to allow Olivier Vernon to walk, reflecting a belief that he was not worth the money paid by the Giants. This would not have been a massive problem had it not been for three factors. First, they let Derrick Shelby walk away, costing them a key rotational player. Second, Cameron Wake is coming off of a severe injury, meaning the defensive end position opposite Olivier Vernon’s vacated spot is also a question mark. Third, the team declined to select a defensive lineman in the draft, only making two defensive picks (both DBs).

The Miami Dolphins have seen a perceived strength turn into a potentially critical weakness.

When you line up the starters for the Dolphins, the situation looks very bleak. Mario Williams could return to form, but his intangibles are a red flag after admittedly giving up a season ago in Buffalo. Andre Branch and Jason Jones will be battling to start opposite Mario Williams, as the team is intent upon Cameron Wake becoming a rotational pass rusher in 2016. From right to left, the unit could see Mario Williams, Earl Mitchell/Jordan Phillips, Ndamukong Suh, and Andre Branch/Jason Jones as starters, with Cameron Wake as the only player worth consideration off of the bench.

Quite a fall from grace.

However, the Dolphins were not at their best in 2015 when they trotted out a traditional lineup. Those who watched the team closely know that their most effective moments came when Ndamukong Suh shifted over to the defensive end position after Cameron Wake’s Week 8 injury.

So, if the Dolphins were most effective with Suh shifting at defensive end in 2015, how can they continue to capitalize on that formation in the upcoming season?

The key to the Dolphins’ defense in 2016 could very well be second year defensive tackle Jordan Phillips.

Who is Jordan Phillips?

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(Photo: NGSC Sports)

One of the more polarizing defensive linemen in the 2015 class, Jordan Phillips entered a perfect situation. He would not be forced to play immediately. With Ndamukong Suh and Earl Mitchell at defensive tackle, he would have the luxury of taking his time in learning the position and ensuring that he was fully recovered from back injuries suffered in college. Suh would also be able to serve as a mentor to Phillips, as would Cameron Wake.

Jordan Phillips possesses impressive athleticism for his size. He is a hulking figure, standing 6’6” and weighing approximately 330 lbs. At that size, Phillip maintained his mobility and was able to maneuver effectively enough on the field. With that being said, defensive tackle is a north south position, with only short bursts of lateral movement required playing largely between the hashes. However, Phillips does have the ability to chase down a runner or sniff out a screen if need be. He doesn’t have the “concrete shoes” that many players of his size are restricted by.

Phillips had all of the makings of a first round pick. However, concerns about his motor caused him to drop. Often during games he would lose his technique late, causing him to become ineffective. Many believe that his issues stemmed from a lack of conditioning and a less than ideal work ethic. However, the Dolphins’ front office clearly believed that Phillips’ talent warranted bringing him on.

The Dolphins’ commitment to drafting the best player on their board during the 2015 draft led them to select Jordan Phillips. He represented the addition of another playmaker and was supposed to make a good unit even better.

Jordan Phillips had an inconsistent rookie season. However, there were several positive moments that showed his potential at the NFL level.

In Week 1, fans got a taste of the ability Phillips possesses. Early in the team’s season opener against the Redskins, Phillips put his surprising agility on display.

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Often defensive tackles have trouble moving around blockers, but Phillips took advantage of bad blocking and a mistake by Matt Jones in order to notch his first sack.

Jordan Phillips also displayed good awareness at times during his rookie season. In the team’s game against the Cowboys, Phillips showed he could impact games with his instincts as well.

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Jordan Phillips follows Tony Romo’s line of sight and is able to knock down the pass.

Phillips’ strength was one of the main reasons that the Dolphins selected him; he was able to hold his ground against the strongest of players.

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On the goal line against Baltimore, Phillips drives back his blocker and contributes to the team’s stuff of the ball carrier.

When Jordan Phillips combines his aforementioned awareness with pure strength, very special things can happen.

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While this might not look like a highlight, this is a very impressive play from Jordan Phillips. He uses his power to avoid being dragged by the lineman, managing to actually direct his blocker and stay in the middle of the field. He saw Matt Schaub stepping up and maneuvered himself to help stay involved and prevent him from either taking off or winding up for a big throw down field.

Phillips displayed how dangerous his combination of skills could be again against the Jets.

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Here, Jordan Phillips uses his strength to bull rush the lineman, driving him back towards Ryan Fitzpatrick. When Fitzpatrick releases, Phillips gets his hands up and bats down the pass.

The Oklahoma product’s physical capabilities make him a very promising player. He also managed to show the instincts and intangibles necessary to make plays in the NFL as a rookie. However, that does not mean he was perfect. He was very far from it.

The following play was a common sight during Jordan Phillips’ rookie year.

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Here, Phillips sees the runner but has trouble disengaging. He sometimes will become clumsy when moving in traffic and disengaging, which is a huge problem at his position. This could be caused by the lack of conditioning that many believe plagued him in college, as he tires throughout the duration of a long game.

It is impossible to say exactly what causes these types of plays for Jordan Phillips, but it is clear that this is a repairable issue. Phillips’ clumsiness is about maneuvering in traffic and disengaging, but does not appear to be caused by his size. He moves fairly well for someone of his build.

With that being said, the story of Jordan Phillips will be written by consistency. He must become consistent if he wants to be able to turn those exceptional plays into regular moments. If he cannot, he will struggle to live up to the potential he possesses thanks to his physical gifts.

How is Jordan Phillips the Key to the Dolphins’ Defense?

Good question, Max.

During 2015, the Miami Dolphins had some of their best moments on defense when they utilized alternative formations and shifts to maximize the talent of Ndamukong Suh. In Week 8, Cameron Wake went down with a torn Achilles. This forced the team to become more creative in order to maintain a solid rotation on the line.

Ndamukong Suh would often play set further out than a defensive tackle normally would, due to his athleticism. He would also, at times, play as a true defensive end.

These personnel shifts allowed the Miami Dolphins to use the talent of their best player in an effort to create pressure on the edge, which Suh can do very well. When he shifts, the offense is caught off guard. Ndamukong Suh changes an offense’s entire approach on every snap. If he moves in the middle of the quarterback’s call, it can be very disruptive.

On this play against the Baltimore Ravens, you can see what type of destruction Suh can create when placed at defensive end.

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Suh shifts with Derrick Shelby and catches the offense completely off guard. He mows down a tight end and sacks Matt Schaub for an eight-yard loss. The beauty of this play lies in both talent maximization and the element of surprise. Not only does Ndamukong Suh have the incredibly rare ability to play on the edge, but the offense also has no idea when it is coming.

Ndamukong Suh has the rare ability to make plays usually reserved for an end from the inside. He also is able to make these plays from a hybrid position, standing further towards the sideline than normal for a DT, but still maintaining the ability to move inside.

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Here, Ndamukong Suh is further out, standing almost across from the right tackle. This isn’t abnormal per say, but Derrick Shelby does move out almost to an outside linebacker position. This makes Suh able to effectively make plays at defensive end. He ends up cutting inside to stop a run, showing the ability he has to play in this in-between formation.

So, where does Jordan Phillips come in to all of this?

If the Dolphins are going to play well up front defensively in 2016, they will need to establish a stronger rotation at defensive end. Jason Jones and Andre Branch should not be your second and third best healthy defensive ends. The Dolphins will need to use alternative means to create plays from the position during the upcoming season, thinking outside of the box to maximize talent.

Earl Mitchell is not a player you want to leave alone on the inside. He is a solid lineman but should not be the primary run stopper (or inside generator of pressure). If Ndamukong Suh moves outside, it leaves a potential vulnerability in the middle of the defense.

The Dolphins do not have a strong candidate at inside linebacker, and they do need Suh playing towards the end position to help maximize their resources and talent at the position. That is where Jordan Phillips comes in.

In the flashes of his maximum ability we saw during 2015, Jordan Phillips showed that he could be a good piece for the Miami Dolphins. He has strength and mobility, and simply has to improve his endurance and clean up his technique.

If Jordan Phillips can become a presence at defensive tackle, it will afford the Miami Dolphins more opportunities to rotate Ndamukong Suh outside. That would mean the defensive line goes from Williams, Phillips, Suh, Branch/Jones (on 1st and 2nd down) to Williams, Mitchell, Suh, Phillips. This minimizes the role of a less dominant player, substituting Mitchell for Jones/Branch and allowing him to hide on the inside of the line, where he could be exposed less than a subpar player would be out at defensive end.

On one snap against the Dallas Cowboys, we saw how the Dolphins could effectively use Phillips to increase Suh’s flexibility.

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The Dallas Cowboys see that Ndamukong Suh is the fourth player from their left on the defensive line. While Derrick Shelby is there on the outside, it forces the Cowboys to run to the other side. In the case of Earl Mitchell, this could allow them to exploit a weakness. Here, Jordan Phillips sees the play develop and tracks down the running back.

He does not do so perfectly, as we see slight troubles moving in traffic and disengaging. However, this is an area where Jordan Phillips can be expected to improve.

If the Miami Dolphins want to establish a defense that can get the job done in 2016 with a clearly depleted roster, they will have to maximize the talent they have at the few positions that are well stocked. Interior defensive linemen are a strength for the Dolphins, so the team will need to make sure they spread that talent.

If Jordan Phillips can establish himself as a solid option inside of the defensive line, it will allow the Dolphins’ coaching staff to creatively implement Ndamukong Suh. This would help create pressure, add talent to the rotation, and also take some pressure off of a secondary that is heavily depleted.

The Skinny:

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(Al Diaz/Miami Herald)

The key to an NFL defense never exists as one player in isolation. It is a matter of which key represents the ability to open the door for many players.

The Miami Dolphins need something to give on their defensive roster. Someone needs to step up because, in its current form, the team will suffer greatly in 2016. While there is no way to acquire more top end talent at this time of year, the Dolphins will need to rely on players already in Miami to become the keys that open doors for others.

Jordan Phillips is one of the most important pieces in the Dolphins’ puzzle towards unlocking even greater potential for the use of Ndamukong Suh.

I am a firm believer in the ability of Jordan Phillips to improve vastly in 2016. In a season that garners little excitement outside of a new coach, Phillips will be an interesting player to follow. If he can step up and improve his technique, it will allow for the Miami Dolphins to creatively utilize Ndamukong Suh. This means continuing to shift him to defensive end, which creates havoc for opposing offenses.

The element of surprise is made possible by Suh’s versatility. However, the lack of depth on the Dolphins’ defensive line means that something will have to afford him to opportunity to use his diverse skill set. Jordan Phillips is the Dolphins’ best chance at this, as the team could shift formations and use Ndamukong Suh as an end with Phillips inside.

If Jordan Phillips can become a formidable player on the interior defensive line, which I believe is very possible (dare I say likely), then he will be the key to unlocking a serious means of improving the Miami Dolphins’ defense in 2016.

 

2 comments

  • Steve Lane (@Steve_Lane63)

    Great article again, Max. I hope you’re right about Phillips!
    Do you think Branch/Jones are really that bad? Will we regret not re-signing Shelby – or is he about the same calibre?

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I read the article on Jordan Phillips ( DT ) correctly, you stated that the team doesn’t have a good candidate for ML ( Mike LB ) ? While it remains to be seen, I’m pretty sure that the coaches are optimistic about Alonzo’s ( ML ) potential ? Good article though….

      Liked by 1 person

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