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Where does Jaelan Phillips go in the draft?

He’s been called both “the best defensive player in the draft” and a potential second round pick

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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

Is it possible that the LA Rams could actually be in range of the 2021 NFL Draft’s best pass rusher even though they don’t have a pick in the top-50? That is something that has been up for debate this draft season in the case of Jaelan Phillips, an edge player who some believe will be the first defensive player off of the board — a top-ten pick — and who others think has too many concerns outside of his football abilities to get selected on day one.

That is the type of fall that Les Snead and Sean McVay could not ignore if it happened.

Phillip’s story has been repeated around the internet recently but we haven’t mentioned him on Turf Show Times because the odds still seem long that he’d even be in range of the Rams, but nobody knows what will actually happen after Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson are off the board. A five-star recruit in the 2017 class, Phillips was a top-ten get for UCLA and ranked above Chase Young at Rivals headed into their college careers.

As freshman, Young had 3.5 sacks in nine games for Ohio State, while Phillips posted that same number — and seven tackles for a loss — in only six games for the Bruins. But from there, the two broke off on separate paths, with Young breaking out for 14.5 TFL and 10.5 sacks in 2018, then 21 TFL and 16.5 sacks in 2019, leading him towards being the unquestioned top defensive player in the 2020 draft.

Despite a set of unusual setbacks in 2018 and 2019, Phillips could be the top defensive player in the 2021 draft.

Those setbacks include handle, ankle, wrist, and head injuries, including multiple concussions that led to a temporary retirement after playing in only four games in 2018. But former UCLA head coach Jim Mora, Jr. has said that Phillips’ medical history is not as concerning as advertised and that there were “other factors at play” that lead to his transfer to Miami.

“There’s no medical history,” Mora said. “That’s not an accurate assessment. There were things that went on after I left UCLA with Jaelan (sic) that I don’t think are accurately reported or accurately documented. People talk about a concussion history. I think like a lot of players, he may have had a concussion, maybe two — and I don’t ever want to downplay those — but there were other factors at play that led to him leaving UCLA.

“I think was a great move for him. I have a tremendous relationship with him. I can tell you this without hesitation, without even the slightest hesitation, if I have an opportunity to draft Jaelan Phillips, I would want him on my team.”

The Hurricanes were elated to have him on their team last season. Having not played in two years, Phillips only recorded 1.5 sacks in the first six games of 2020, but then he posted 6.5 in the final four games against NC State, Virginia Tech, Duke, and North Carolina. He finished with eight sacks and 15.5 TFL in only 10 games and that is unusually high production for any top pro prospect; college football player typically don’t accumulate sacks like they do in the league but it should still be significant when they do even if many of those leaders never amount to anything in the league.

Many of those players aren’t also built like Jadeveon Clowney and Danielle Hunter.

At his pro day in March, Phillips also impressed, running a 4.56 40-yard dash at 6’5 and 260 lbs.

Jaelan Phillips, 2021: 6’5, 260 lbs, 4.56, 36” vert, 21 reps on bench, 125” broad

Jadeveon Clowney, 2014: 6’5, 266 lbs, 4.53, 37.5” vert, 21 reps, 124” broad

Ziggy Ansah, 2013: 6’5, 271 lbs, 4.56, 34.5” vert, 21 reps, 118” broad

Tremaine Edmunds, 2018: 6’5, 253 lbs, 4.54, 19 reps, 117” broad

Danielle Hunter, 2015: 6’5, 252 lbs, 4.57, 25 reps

Brian Burns, 2019: 6’5, 249 lbs, 4.53, 36” vert, 129” broad

That’s a pretty good list and with the exception of Hunter, a third round pick, they were all first rounders. But then also consider a current member of the Rams:

Justin Hollins, 2019: 6’5, 248 lbs, 4.50, 36.5” vert, 25 reps, 119” broad

By many accounts, Phillips would be a top-ten draft pick and potentially the first defensive player off of the board. Since 2013, the only non-pass rusher to be the first defensive player picked was Denzel Ward in 2018 and he only barely edged out Bradley Chubb based on the fact that the Browns had already picked Myles Garrett one year earlier — and were still debating if Chubb should be the pick.

Phillips does have other concerns with his game and will need development, refinement, and experience, but that makes it all the more interesting that he was still so dominant at two different college programs, three years apart. That time off could cost him though.

The Athletic’s consensus big board, compiled from over 50 sources, has Phillips ranked as the 19th-best player in the class, number two at his position behind Kwity Paye. That lines up with his average draft value at the NFL Mock Draft Database (20th) and many are predicting him to be a mid-to-late first round pick. However, that could just as easily mean that Phillips’ injury history could push him into day two, just as it did in the past with players like Jaylon Smith and Myles Jack.

Some such players never amount to anything in the league and their injury red flags hold them back indefinitely.

Others prove that injuries really can be put behind you.

If Phillips does happen to fall outside of the top-40, is he too talented to pass up?