Adrian Phillips has not reached that level just yet, but he has certainly plenty a lot of quality football ever since joining the Patriots as a free agent last offseason. He also has received plenty of praise for his performance as a versatile box safety — including from Belichick himself: New England’s head coach spent the final four minutes of his latest media conference call raving about Phillips.
One name that was also mentioned? Patrick Chung’s.
“It’s very impressive. We’ve been fortunate to have players like that,” Belichick said when asked about Phillips’ ability to line up all over the defensive formation.
“Certainly, Chung did a lot of that for us. Devin [McCourty] has done it, can do it. Physically, that’s probably not the best thing for him, but he’s done it for us and has done it well. Devin came in the league as a corner, but Adrian was very good around the line of scrimmage for the Chargers. In San Diego, he played in the box. He played on the edge of the defense. They played that style of the defense where the safeties really play as linebackers in Coach [Gus] Bradley’s defense.”
Phillips started his NFL career with the then-San Diego Chargers, appearing in 66 games between the 2014 and 2019 seasons. A core special teamer and do-it-all defensive back, the former undrafted free agent repeatedly showcased his potential — potential that led to New England investing in him.
The Patriots brought him aboard in 2020, signing him to a two-year, $6 million contract. 27 games later, Phillips looks like a bargain.
“You can see his instinctiveness,” Belichick said. “You go all the way back to him at Texas and talking to his coaches back there. It’s pretty much the same thing in college as it was in the NFL. Very instinctive. Very high IQ. Plays faster and bigger than whatever his dimensions and times are. He’s got a real high level of instinctiveness and anticipation. For a lot of players in that position — linebackers, safeties, guys that play kind of in the interior part of the defense — when you have a lot of guys running around, doing different things, no matter how fast the guy is, it can slow them down.
“And no matter how strong he is, you don’t really get into a good football-hitting contact position because of the amount of time it takes or being able to figure out exactly where you’re going and where you need to be and the angle you need to take to get there and all that. It can neutralize a lot of those things. You see players with great instincts, which Adrian has, both in the running game and the passing game.”
Phillips already had a successful individual first year in the system, seeing action in all 16 games and finishing with a pair of interceptions, a sack, and a team-leading 109 tackles. However, the Patriots’ lack of off-the-ball linebacker talent oftentimes forced him into unfavorable situations.
No such thing is holding him back this season, and as a result Phillips is playing the best football of his career: on the field for 81 percent of New England’s defensive snaps he has already registered a career-high four interceptions — including one that was returned for a touchdown, against no other than his old team.
Phillips’ ball skills also were mentioned by Belichick on Monday.
“He’s got excellent hands,” he said. “If you look at some of the interceptions he has made for us and in his career, those are really good catches that a lot of defensive players might not be able to make that turnover play. All those things are positive. When he gets the opportunity to do it, he’s a good tackler. He’s got good ball awareness to cause fumbles and that kind of thing and intercept passes.”
New England’s head coach named one concrete example as well, from the game against the Carolina Panthers earlier this month. While it eventually did not count, with the ball-carrier already being ruled down by contact, Belichick came away impressed with Phillips’ reactionary skills.
“When [Jalen] Mills pulled the ball off of him down there around the 10-yard line, Adrian’s right there, scooped it up and returned it for a touchdown, “he said. “The runner was down and the play obviously didn’t count, but that was another good example of how quickly he reacted. “He came from all the way on the other side of the field to be there, to make the recovery and got the ball in the end zone.
“It’s really a good play. It didn’t count, but, again, those are the kind of things that he just does on a pretty regular basis. You sort of take them for granted, but they’re really good plays. We can’t take them for granted, but he makes a lot of them. Did we see everything? I don’t know. I think you saw him play like that in San Diego. You saw him play like that at the University of Texas, and he continues to be productive.”
Phillips has established himself as one of the most valuable players on a Patriots defense currently ranking near the top of the league in most major categories. He also has turned into a prime candidate to receive a new contract.
Playing on the final season of his two-year pact, the 29-year-old is positioning himself well for unrestricted free agency next spring. New England would certainly prefer to keep him — especially with the future of fellow safety Devin McCourty very much in question (at 34, McCourty is a candidate for retirement) — but that is obviously not a guarantee.
That said, Belichick’s words speak for themselves: he is a big fan of Phillips and knows how important he has become to his defense.
“He’s one of our best players. He’s one of our most versatile players. He almost always does the right thing,” Belichick said. “When something comes up, maybe you haven’t covered it, maybe you haven’t exactly gone through that situation or particular way of blocking, crack-block or something has unfolded, but he almost always does the right thing, kind of like Chung.
“Stuff happens, and he’s got a decision to make, and it’s maybe a little grey, and he just does the right thing. He does what you would want him to do without really telling him exactly what to do in that situation, so all that’s impressive.”