2021 NFL draft: Miami's Jaelan Phillips looks like a 1st-round star, but character, medical issues could cause slide

Eric Edholm
·7-min read

Leading up to the 2021 NFL draft, which starts April 29, Yahoo Sports will count down our top 100 overall prospects. We’ll count them down in groups of five for Nos. 100-51, followed by more in-depth reports on our top 50 players, with help from our scouting assistant, Liam Blutman. We reserve the right to make changes to players’ grades and evaluations based on injury updates, pro-day workouts or late-arriving information from NFL teams.

Other prospect rankings: Nos. 100-96 | 95-91 | 90-86 | 85-81 | 80-76 | 75-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. OT Liam Eichenberg | 49. WR Terrace Marshall Jr. | 48. LB Chazz Surratt | 47. EDGE Joe Tryon | 46. OT-OG Alex Leatherwood | 45. CB Asante Samuel Jr. | 44. DL Levi Onwuzurike | 43. LB Jabril Cox | 42. DT Daviyon Nixon | 41. EDGE Ronnie Perkins | 40. LB Nick Bolton | 39. CB Ifeatu Melifonwu | 38. WR Elijah Moore | 37. OT Jalen Mayfield | 36. EDGE Carlos Basham Jr. | 35. CB Elijah Molden | 34. RB Travis Etienne | 33. WR Kadarius Toney | 32. EDGE Jayson Oweh | 31. LB Zaven Collins | 30. DT Christian Barmore | 29. QB Mac Jones | 28. CB Caleb Farley | 27. RB Javonte Williams | 26. C-OG Landon Dickerson | 25. S Trevon Moehrig | 24. CB Greg Newsome II | 23. WR Rashod Bateman | 22. EDGE Greg Rousseau | 21. OT Christian Darrisaw | 20. RB Najee Harris | 19. LB-S Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah | 18. EDGE Jaelan Phillips | 17. OT Teven Jenkins | 16. EDGE Kwity Paye | 15. CB Jaycee Horn | 14. OT-OG Rashawn Slater | 13. OG-OT Alijah Vera-Tucker | 12. WR DeVonta Smith | 11. EDGE Azeez Ojulari | 10. CB Patrick Surtain II | 9. OT Penei Sewell | 8. QB Zach Wilson | 7. LB Micah Parsons | 6. QB Trey Lance | 5. WR Jaylen Waddle | 4. QB Justin Fields | 3. WR Ja'Marr Chase | 2. TE Kyle Pitts | 1. QB Trevor Lawrence

Here's how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Here's how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

18. Miami EDGE Jaelan Phillips

6-foot-6, 260 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 6.07 — possible immediate starter

TL;DR scouting report: Phillips might be the best edge-rush talent in the 2021 class, but medical, character concerns must be thoroughly vetted

Games watched: Louisville (2020), Florida State (2020), Clemson (2020), Virginia (2020), Pitt (2020)

The skinny: A 5-star Rivals recruit (No. 6 nationally in 2017, ahead of 2020 No. 2 overall pick Chase Young), Phillips committed to UCLA and enrolled there early. As a freshman, he played in seven games (four starts) and made 21 tackles (seven for losses), 3.5 sacks and two pass breakups, as his season was cut short by an ankle injury and a concussion.  

In January 2018, he was hit by a car while on a scooter, suffering a wrist injury that lingered. Phillips played in four games (two starts) that UCLA season, making 20 tackles and one sack but missed the remainder of the season with another concussion.

Phillips announced that he was retiring from football following the second concussion, but changed his mind and transferred to Miami, sitting out the 2019 season. 

In 2020, he made 45 tackles (15.5 for losses), eight sacks, four pass breakups and an interception, earning second-team AP All-American and second-team All-ACC mention. Phillips skipped the Hurricanes’ bowl game and declared early for the 2021 draft.

Upside: Elite traits for the position — great height, weight distribution and long wingspan (80 3/4 inches). Tested through the roof at Miami’s pro day, running a 4.57-second 40-yard dash (with a great 10-yard split: 1.59), 36-inch vertical jump, 125-inch broad jump, 4.18-second short shuttle and 7.13-second 3-cone drill.

Ideal combination of athleticism and length. Has the kind of frame and athleticism to drop a few pounds or add mass and play multiple techniques with his hand on the ground. Naturally fluid and smooth mover with high-end burst and twitch.

Might have been the best EDGE in the country down the stretch in 2020 — talent finally arrived. Logged 36 total pressures in his final seven games. Had 6.5 sacks in his final four games before opting out. We got a glimpse of a former elite recruit with tremendous upside.

Displays a lightning first step off the ball. Showed cornering ability on the edge. Outstanding closing ability. Generates some speed to power as a rusher. Loose hips and ankles to take sharp angles to the ball. Uses his hands and his length to get tackles off-balance and render their punches ineffective. Loops well inside on stunts and twists.

Good diagnostic skills vs. the run. Generally sees the action in front of him and makes quick adjustments. Handles option-game responsibilities well. Edge-setting potential with his length, quickness, power potential and desire. Will stack some bigger tackles and detach from blocks. Can funnel plays back inside for his teammates to clean up. Rarely on the ground — keeps a good base and maintains his balance.

Motor runs hot — plays with passion and energy. Makes plays downfield and from the backside. Looked reborn in a new setting. Outstanding all-around potential — could be an All-Pro if he puts it all together.

Jaelan Phillips has everything you want in an EDGE. prospect but could slide because of medical and character worries. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)
Jaelan Phillips has everything you want in an EDGE prospect but could slide because of medical and character worries. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)

Downside: Worrisome medical history — NFL teams looked hard at hand, ankle and wrist injuries. The wrist required multiple procedures and could be a chronic worry. Multiple concussions are concerning — at least three that we know of. UCLA doctors advised him to medically retire late in 2018.

Inexperienced — fewer than 1,000 career snaps. Really only a one-year producer. Took a few games in 2020 to get his sea legs underneath him. Rushed almost exclusively from the left side in 2020. Not an enormous amount of versatility to his game. Wasn’t used a ton on special teams.

Needs to add strength to his core and lower body. Still will struggle to muscle through to set the edge. Arm length (33 1/4 inches) and hand size (9 3/4 inches) are merely average. Bench-press total (21 reps) on the low side, too.

Still developing a pass-rush arsenal — gets slowed if his initial move stymied and could use some countermeasures. Spin move looks methodical. Plays with occasionally sloppy hands and can lose battles before they really start. Should be a better inside-counter rusher — potential there but needs to be unlocked.

Gets upright and gives blockers too big a target at times. Tips his pass-rush moves. Won’t be able to rely solely on his get-off quickness and needs to add polish and technique to his game. Let his passion run over vs. FSU, flagged twice for unsportsmanlike conduct (one for kicking an opponent’s helmet that had come off) and ejected early in the second quarter.

Has some character concerns that NFL people wanted answers for, digging on the details of why he flamed out at UCLA. Former Bruins head coach Jim Mora Jr., who recruited and coached Phillips, recently downplayed his concussion history and said that “there were other factors at play that led to him leaving UCLA.” Miami coaches said they were pleased with Phillips’ work, but his past still stands as an issue for some NFL clubs. 

Best-suited destination: Without the medical and character concerns, Phillips might be the best defensive prospect in the entire 2021 class. He has the length, athleticism, burst and power to be a high-end pass rusher.

Phillips is said to have matured and evolved, but the red flags still could push him down some boards, especially with some more conservative teams. It will take a GM with conviction (and perhaps job security) to sign off on using a first-round pick on Phillips.

Assuming he answers those questions, there’s no reason to think he can’t develop into a prototypical edge rusher and continue building off his explosive 2020 season.

Did you know: Phillips’ grandfather, Jon Robertson, is a world-renowned pianist and conductor who ran the music department at UCLA. Music always has been a big part of Phillips’ life. When he initially gave up football, Phillips enrolled at Los Angeles City College, studying music and dreaming of becoming a producer and rap artist.

“During my recovery I had to seriously think about what I wanted to pursue outside of football, and music was really what I found myself drawn to. I realized that I wanted to pursue a full-time career in music and wanted to get the proper training,” Phillips said.

Player comp: Phillips has some Jadevon Clowney-like qualities to him.

Expected draft range: Top-40 pick

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