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Darius Phillips: The ballhawk the Bengals need

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EAST LANSING, MI - SEPTEMBER 09: Cornerback Darius Phillips #4 of the Western Michigan Broncos intercepts a pass intended for wide receiver Felton Davis III #18 of the Michigan State Spartans during the first quarter at Spartan Stadium on September 9, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
EAST LANSING, MI - SEPTEMBER 09: Cornerback Darius Phillips #4 of the Western Michigan Broncos intercepts a pass intended for wide receiver Felton Davis III #18 of the Michigan State Spartans during the first quarter at Spartan Stadium on September 9, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /
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The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Western Michigan cornerback Darius Phillips in the fifth-round of the 2018 NFL Draft. He’s what the secondary needs.

The Cincinnati Bengals added a tremendous amount of versatility with their fifth-round compensatory pick by selecting Western Michigan cornerback Darius Phillips. Having an opportunity to play for three Division 1 colleges coming out of high school, he settled with Western Michigan after Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone left to become head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Looking at all of the day three selections by the Bengals, Phillips was my favorite. Cincinnati has been looking to add ballhawks to their secondary, and that’s exactly what they got.

Standing at 5’9″ and 188 pounds, he is normally a guy that teams will shy away from wanting bigger and taller cornerbacks to play against the physical receivers in today’s NFL. He may be shorter than most coaches would like, but the kid shows the ability to get up and make a play at the catch point. Phillips holds a few records in the FBS including career runbacks (12), ranks fifth in all-time kick return yards (3,145), and tied for career interceptions returned for touchdowns (5).

Starting out as a wide receiver in college, he scored 14 touchdowns in multiple ways including as a receiver, interceptions, kick returns, and punt returns. That’s right; he is a reliable return specialist who also happens to be one of Cincinnati’s needs this offseason. In fact, alongside Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, he is the only other player to be awarded MAC Special Teams Player of the Year twice.

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Turning back to his defensive achievements, he was a three-time All-MAC pick at cornerback. During his final season at Western Michigan, Phillips hauled in 40 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles (one of which was returned for a touchdown), and three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown). That’s two touchdowns just on defense in his senior season let alone forcing the turnovers. Add on two 100-yard kick returns for touchdowns, and that’s four scores his final season with the team.

Most people would question his talent against higher competition, but it seemed that’s when he shined the most. If you didn’t take a look at his film against Michigan State last season, I promise you that just about every play on the tape he is making a play. During that game, Phillips had a 100-yard kickoff for a touchdown, an interception, and three pass deflections. Let’s take a look at some of the plays he made in that game.

As I mentioned in the tweet, the arrow was pointed at the wrong cornerback in this play. Bottom of your screen is where Phillips lines up and on a deep post route he finds himself trailing the receiver but gets enough speed to go up over the top of the receiver to deflect the pass. His closing speed is nothing to ignore.

This is another play that Phillips gets his hands on the ball. Almost coming away with his second interception of the game. Playing in deep coverage, Phillips has the awareness and route recognition to jump in front of receivers to make a play on the ball. Depending on what the Bengals want to do because of his size, he might play more off man coverage in the NFL. He did display excellent press man coverage in this game against Michigan State, however.

It’s difficult to see around the scoreboard at the bottom but watch Phillips as soon as the ball is snapped. Instantly is getting his hands on his assignment and making it impossible for the receiver to not only gain separation but haul in the catch. A great example of a great play that doesn’t end up on the box score stats since he didn’t get a hand on the ball. One play that does show up on the stat sheet is this one.

Phillips knows the low block is coming and reacts perfectly and not missing a beat. He gets ahold of the ballcarrier and forces the fumble then returning it to the house. I cannot emphasize this enough; this kid is a game changer. He will most likely develop into a slot cornerback starting out, especially with the amount of talent at the cornerback position at the moment. Could he be someone that the Bengals are looking at to possibly replace cornerback Darqueze Dennard who is playing on his fifth-year option? It could be insurance in case they can’t afford him next offseason.

Following the passing of his mother in April of 2017, Phillips came out and had his best season at Western Michigan last year showing that nothing will slow him down. Dedicating last year to his mother, he proved that he is worthy of an NFL roster spot. An injury kept him out of the Senior Bowl and combine, but he impressed at his pro day including his 40-yard dash time of 4.39.

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Even though Phillips won’t likely see much playing time at cornerback in his rookie season, he could be a solid return specialist for Cincinnati who is desperate need of one. The Western Michigan product can score from anywhere on the field and is exactly what this Bengals secondary needs and has been wanting all offseason. A guy that can go up and contest passes and come away with turnovers. Cincinnati had only 14 turnovers last season which ranked at the bottom of the league. Phillips is a player I expect to be a long time contributor and ballhawk for the Bengals.

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