The NFL is filled with tales of players that had “contract-year” performances, received a new deal and then didn’t come close to living up to expectations.
The Cardinals hope defensive tackle Jordan Phillips isn’t in that group, but there’s no question it’s trending that way.
Phillips had a disappointing tenure with the Miami Dolphins after being a second-round pick in 2015. Notably, Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was in Miami as defensive coordinator in 2016.
Early in the 2018 season, Phillips had a sideline confrontation with coaches concerning his playing time and he was summarily placed on waivers only to be claimed by the Buffalo Bills. In his first four seasons, Phillips never had more than 2.0 sacks, 24 tackles or five tackles for loss.
That all changed in 2019 after he re-signed with the Bills for one year and $4.25 million.
Suddenly, Phillips produced like never before. He totaled 9.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and 31 tackles that season as he headed for unrestricted free agency again.
Despite his play, there wasn’t a long line of suitors at his door. Maybe they were wary of could have been a “contract-year wonder.”
In fairness, it was a pandemic-affected offseason, but the reality is that other players were pursued early in the process. It took until 19 days after the start of the league year that the Cardinals bestowed a three-year, $30 million contract on Phillips that included an $8 million signing bonus with what turned out to be $18.5 million guaranteed.
That’s because his presence on the roster on the fifth day of the current league year added $4.5 million guaranteed to his $10 million base salary for 2021 for a total of $8.5 million guaranteed. That adds to the signing bonus and the $2 million base guarantee in 2020. There was also a voidable 2023 year in the contract, so the signing bonus could be prorated over four years.
What have the Cardinals gotten for that money? Not much.
He played only nine games last season because of persistent hamstring issues, which is not normally an injury that affects players the size of Phillips (6-foot-6, 341 pounds). In those games, he had 2.0 sacks, 10 tackles and one tackle for loss.
He rarely practiced in training camp this summer because of an undisclosed injury and shortly after returning from the COVID-19 list was injured again, landing him on reserve/injured for at least the first three games of the season.
Did the Cardinals put too much stock in that 2019 season when it could be argued he was playing very motivated for a new deal? It sure appears that way. We know that when Week 3 concludes, he will have played in only nine of the team’s 19 games.
It's also worth looking back at pre-draft reports in 2015 when Lindy's preview magazine touted his physical ability, but then warned, "Phillips could just as easily wind up the second coming of Marcus Stroud or Albert Haynesworth, who lacked the requisite work ethic to take full advantage of their talents."
Asked about Phillips Monday in the team’s first practice of the week to prepare for the Tennessee Titans, head coach Kliff Kingsbury said, “We need him to get healthy and feel good. And we know what he can do when he's at his best. And that's what I expect him to be when he gets back from IR.”
Kingsbury has to portray optimism and he obviously wants to be right. If not, Phillips will go down as just another overpaid player that a team misjudged. The hope is that Phillips will realize that unless he plays at a high level whenever he does return, there’s no way the Cardinals will pay him his scheduled $10 million salary in 2022.