The Bengals had a few bright spots at the end of 2019 that most fans understandably missed. Cincinnati was closer to securing the first overall pick than any meaningful win, but some players made the most of their opportunity.
Cornerback Darius Phillips was one of those players. He didn’t play a ton, but he made his presence felt while he was out there. He only played 109 snaps, but he recorded four interceptions. That was the most among any Bengal, and he and safety Jessie Bates were the only two defenders to record multiple interceptions.
This landed him on ESPN’s latest ranking for young players who could breakout in 2020. The third-year player came in at No. 21 on the list that is comprised of mid to late round draft picks who haven’t received major playing time in their careers.
A small-schooler out of Western Michigan, Phillips caught scouts’ eyes by putting on a show against the big boys. He returned a kickoff 100 yards against USC and picked off balls against USC and Michigan State. Phillips was not a big corner at 5-10, 193 pounds, so scouts assumed he would have to play inside and create value on special teams, but he drew enough interest to get a combine invite, and the Bengals popped him in the fifth round.
While the Bengals reloaded on corners in free agency, the end result was pretty favorable for Phillips. Trae Waynes and Jackson are likely locks to play, with Mackensie Alexander as the presumptive third corner ahead of Phillips. Jackson was the only one of the corners ahead of Phillips in the pecking order to return, and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo seemed enamored with Phillips’ finish to last season, praising his ball skills at the combine. There might be more here than meets the eye.
This is a pretty nice list to be on. One Bengal player who was on this list before was defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Most fans and analysts assume that the starting three corners will probably be William Jackson, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. We should also expect to see a very healthy amount of three safety sets with Bates, Shawn Williams and Vonn Bell all sharing the field as well. Phillips would really have to earn his playing time.
One important note is that Phillips has two years left on his rookie deal, and Alexander signed a one-year contract. This is also a very unusual season where a player ahead of Phillips could easily be forced to miss time due to a positive COVID test.
Phillips obviously is coming into 2020 on the right foot after having such an impact at the end of last season. Especially on a defense that rarely caused turnovers a year ago. It is hard to ignore that kind of play making even if it comes with an inexperienced player who is likely to get beat at times.
Phillips has a bit of an uphill battle to reach where this list has him going, but we would be wrong to count him out from pulling it off.