Phillips (23) is no stranger to mixing it up in the same area of the field as the linebackers
Jermaine Phillips re-signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after becoming an unrestricted free agent, but he still might make a significant move in 2009.
Phillips' address hasn't changed, but his job description might. That's because the Buccaneers plan to see if their starting strong safety would be an equally good fit at weakside linebacker.
The move and its timing is reminiscent of the 2002 offseason, when a new Tampa Bay coaching staff made the surprise decision to replace departed middle linebacker Jamie Duncan with Shelton Quarles, who had started the previous three seasons at strongside linebacker. Quarles ended up in the Pro Bowl the following February, one week after he started in the Buccaneers' Super Bowl XXXVII victory over Oakland.
The possible move of Phillips is a bit more radical, of course, since he would be moving up a level in the defense. The eighth-year NFL defender has been playing safety since his high school days, though he was also a quarterback as a prep and a wide receiver to begin his college career at Georgia.
The Buccaneers are not putting all of their eggs in one basket, of course. The team is still interested in seeing what it has in such in-house linebacker candidates as Quincy Black, Geno Hayes and Adam Hayward, and there remains the possibility of an addition at the position through free agency and the draft. Still, the team-oriented Phillips, who is called "Flip" by most of his fellow Buccaneers, didn't hesitate to take on this new challenge.
"I'd never played linebacker before, and I told them, 'I'll never know how effective I'm going to be at the position or how fun it will be for me unless I try it.' So I told them I was willing to give it a try and we'll see how it goes. I know there's a lot more hitting up there and I like to hit, so let's work out and see what happens."
Phillips said the idea was brought to him by Head Coach Raheem Morris, and that he was not pressured to do something with which he wasn't comfortable.
"It was something that coach brought to my attention, kind of like a proposal," recounted Phillips. "He said, 'You can do this, and I'd like to see you try it, or you can just stay where you are.' The way I see it, you'll never know if you're going to like something unless you try it. I'm willing to give it a try and go out there and work. If I can better serve the team at linebacker rather than safety, then that's where I want to be. But if I can better serve the team at safety than linebacker, then that's where I want to be. I just want to be where I can help the organization win. That's the main objective, and being the team player I am, I'm willing to do whatever it takes."
Considering the positions involved, Phillips' potential switch is actually more reminiscent of the 1993 and 1994 seasons, when Sam Wyche's coaching staff used long-time safety Barney Bussey (a former player for Wyche in Cincinnati) as the primary starter at outside linebacker. Phillips may not end up with the job, but neither is this offseason experiment a frivolous ones. The Buccaneers have good reason to believe that Phillips could be a force at the position, in large part because they've seen him hold his own in the congestion around the line of scrimmage on countless occasions.
"In his career here, he has played so frequently in the box, as a man defender, a zone defender, a blitzer," said Linebackers Coach Joe Barry, who welcomed to his meeting room at One Buccaneer Place on Monday. "You can go over the tape from his years here and find numerous examples of him blowing up fullbacks and using his hands and taking on guards and shedding off linemen and making tackles.
"When you move a defensive back to linebacker, people can be a little leery about the physical aspect of it, the physical part of the game, and that's what Jermaine is. Jermaine's a hitter. He's a physical presence on the field. That's the first thing you have to answer when you move a safety to linebacker: 'Can he physically hold up? Can he physically do it?' Just from his style of play, I say, 'Yes.'"
Barry was hired to be the linebackers coach on Morris' staff in January, but he is not new to the building, or to Phillips. He held the same position in Tampa from 2001-06 and got a very good feel for the type of work ethic and physical skills that Phillips possesses. Barry also insists that Phillips has the size for the position; the veteran defensive back has been listed on the Bucs' roster as a 220-pounder for years but is currently has more like 230 pounds on his 6-2 frame. Two of the Bucs' starting three linebackers in Super Bowl XXXVII – Pro Bowlers Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles – were lighter than 230 in that game.
"[Phillips] has so many linebacker attributes just from the physical standpoint alone," said Barry. "It's true that being a linebacker is a completely different world from being a DB, just like it is for a linebacker going back to DB and having all that space you have to deal with. When a DB goes down to linebacker, everything is now close quarters. Instead of having 10 yards to react, you have four yards to react. Instead of being 10 yards away from those big offensive linemen, now you're right in their faces and you have to deal with them when they get up on you.
"But again, we feel comfortable doing this because Jermaine has played those spots as a safety with all the eight-man fronts we've played over the years and the different deployments we've had for our safeties. Now, it's a different world when you're lined up with your toes four yards from the line of scrimmage rather than dropping down into the box, but those are things we're going to have to work through."
The Buccaneers will have a new starter at weakside linebacker for the first time since 1995. Brooks took over that spot as a rookie in '95 and played in the next 224 consecutive games, starting all but three of them. An 11-time Pro Bowler and the team's all-time leading tackler, Brooks was one of five veteran players released last month as team management began to forge a new direction for the immediate future.
A move of Phillips to the second level of defense could help the team get all three of its playmaking safeties on the field more often. Third-year man Tanard Jackson has started all 32 games of the past two seasons at free safety while Phillips has held down the strong safety spot since 2005 (he played free safety in 2003 and 2004). The Bucs drafted both Jackson and fellow safety Sabby Piscitelli in 2007 and have since looked for a way to get Piscitelli on the field. The former Oregon State star missed most of his rookie season with a foot injury but saw significant action on defense last fall. He ended up with five starts while Phillips missed time with arm fractures but had been rotating in at both safety spots even before Phillips' injuries.
Phillips was originally drafted by the Buccaneers in the fifth round in 2002. He played primarily on special teams as a rookie during Tampa Bay's Super Bowl season, then worked into the starting lineup at free safety in 2003. He took that job out of training camp in 2004 and started nine games before landing on injured reserved. In 2005, Phillips moved to strong safety, and he has started 55 games at that spot in the last four years.
Despite missing five games and portions of two others last year, Phillips racked up 86 tackles and tied for second on the team with three interceptions. He also scored one of Tampa Bay's four defensive touchdowns in 2008, returning a fumble 38 yards to the end zone against Green Bay on September 28.
Phillips set a career high with 124 tackles in 2006 and nearly matched that in '07 with 120 more stops. He also recorded a total of six interceptions, two sacks, five forced fumbles and 17 passes defensed over that span. Overall, in 94 career games (72 starts), Phillips has amassed 535 tackles, 11 interceptions, three sacks, 10 forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 50 stops on special teams.
He is likely to add significantly to those totals in the next few years. Whether that's a result of his play at linebacker or safety will be determined in the next few months.
"It's early, it's the middle of March, so we felt now's the time to try [the switch]," said to Barry. "Let's train him like he's a 'backer. We've got a mini-camp coming up here in two weeks and we'll get a look at him at Will linebacker and see how he does. We're fired up about him. Coach Morris and Coach [Jim] Bates and myself, we've all talked to him about it individually and he's been great. He's looking forward to it. As a coaching staff, we're very excited about it."