Kyle Phillips came to Tennessee as one of the vaunted 5-stars in his recruiting class. Many viewed him as an ideal defensive end who could dominate the college game before heading to the NFL. Four years later, the story on Phillips has radically changed.
Now, he’s hoping to hear his name called towards the later end of the NFL draft. There’s still a good chance that he will go the undrafted free agent route when it’s all said and done.
What happened after Phillips arrived on campus? Why is he currently projected as a 5th round pick at best? A mixture of unfortunate injury luck and a negligent coaching staff meant that Phillips almost got lost in the shuffle. In 2018, he finally experienced a rebound of sorts.
We break down what Phillips does well, what his best projection is, and what he might bring to the NFL.
Weight: 277 pounds
40-Yard Dash: 4.65 seconds
Bench Press: 17 reps
Career Totals: 41 appearances, 20 starts, 111 tackles, 15.5 tackles-for-loss, 7 sacks
Phillips enrolled at Tennessee as a 5-star defensive end out of Nashville. He weighed closer to 250 pounds and had the potential to be either a larger defensive end or a defensive tackle while at Tennessee. Phillips started pushing for playing time as a true freshman in 2015 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. In 2016, he played in 11 games and began to become a more reliable part of the line rotation, though at a slower pace than expected.
His 2017 was largely unremarkable, even if he did start in seven games. The downfall of Butch Jones left many players in limbo, and it’s hard to separate the team’s overall performance vs. individual players.
2018 was where Phillips finally had his chance to show what he could do as a full-time starter. It’s unfortunate that he only got one year under Pruitt, as Phillips had his most promising season to date. He finished 2018 with 55 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception. The staff tried to hammer his versatility as both a pass rusher and edge setter on the outside, while also shifting him inside in certain packages. The results were mixed (more on that below).
Ultimately, Phillips was another player treated unfairly by a collapsing program and a coaching staff asleep at the wheel. Right as he began to turn the corner and live up to his potential, the team had to hit the reset button. Any team drafting him is doing it for his potential and the flashes that he has shown in his career.
Note: Games watched were Charlotte, Auburn, South Carolina, and Florida.
Phillips is primarily used as an edge-setter, rather than a pure pass rusher by the staff. He is tasked with keeping contain and diagnosing plays at the line of scrimmage rather than getting upfield immediately. However, he gets plenty of reps in pass rushing—more than enough to judge his potential at the next level. Phillips also works as a defensive tackle, though much less frequently than the other two roles. Those situations are usually when Tennessee puts five on the line, or when they use him strictly as a pass rusher.
Game speed seems a bit slower than drill speed. Doesn’t seem to have much bend, and often times goes too upright when attacking.
Good size and build. Most noticeable when finishing the play against ball carriers or quarterbacks. Rarely lets anyone out of his grasp, and often stops them right where they are. Very high motor. Even gives 100 percent against inferior opponents. One tackle in the Charlotte game happened 20+ yards away from his original spot on the field.
Play against run blocking on the inside/outside is...not encouraging. Phillips gets blasted off the line way too many times, even if he is more naturally a pass rusher. Someone with his size should be able to put up more resistance.
That being said, he does show spurts of being an impact player in this regard. Phillips usually handled double teams pretty well, and he was able to create space to get around a blocker more than a few times.
His pass rushing on the inside is arguably the most surprising part. Phillips does very well against guards when he’s asked to get after the quarterback. That’s the way it should be, but Phillips’ burst and strength really shows with these types of plays.
Another positive: Phillips always gets his hands up when he realizes the pass is coming. It’s a small plus, but he successfully bats down enough attempts to make it worthwhile. Helps that he is 6-foot-4 and has a good wingspan to boot.
Prediction: Situational Pass Rusher/Rotational End
The absolute best case scenario for whatever team drafts Phillips is that his physical talent is untouched. If the team is confident enough that they believe Phillips can reach the ceiling he once had, then Phillips could conceivably become a starting 4-3 defensive end.
As it stands, that is a long ways away from happening. Instead, Phillips most likely projects as a situational pass rusher or a backup 4-3 defensive end. There’s no denying that Phillips has ideal size and a high motor. Those two traits will get him far, along with his reliability in tackling. But Phillips’ tendency to get bullied at the line by stronger tackles make a starting job unlikely. In known passing situations, Phillips could really shine. He’s got adequate speed for someone with his build and showed enough skill that an NFL team could help him refine the strong parts of his game.