Jacob Phillips didn't have many days off in 2020.
His year started in the College Football Playoff at LSU, where Phillips was a top linebacker and tackling leader for one of the best defenses in the country. Just a day after the the Tigers toppled Clemson to win the national title, Phillips began daily preparations for the scouting combine and NFL Draft.
The Browns, of course, snagged Phillips in the third round and immediately gave him a chance to ascend as a rookie linebacker. After enduring an entire offseason of virtual coaching and his first NFL training camp, he played in nine games and made 25 tackles — including a team-leading 10 takedowns in the Browns' playoff-clinching Week 17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now, Phillips is embracing the ample amount of recovery time NFL players are given each offseason.
"It's actually kind of weird now that I can calm down, chill a little bit and take a breath" he said in a recent interview on Best Podcast Available. "Obviously, I'm (eager to get) back to work, but it's cool to have a bit of a breath."
Phillips' list of lessons learned as a rookie is extensive.
In addition to the typical learning curve all first-year players experience in the pros, Phillips battled through several injuries that kept him off the field in spurts of the first half of the year. But his absences didn't prevent him from continuing to grow as a linebacker and becoming an asset for one of the Browns' youngest position groups on the team.
The Browns drafted Phillips for his speed and tackling abilities and believe he'll become a core member of the defense as his experience grows. He's still just 21 years old, and after a year of navigating obstacles no previous rookie class faced due to COVID-19, he plans to set higher expectations for his play in 2021.
"I think I'm a whole lot smarter," Phillips said. "Coming from college, watching film isn't as much of a big thing. It's basically just everyone going out and competing. Obviously there's schemes, but in the NFL, we all know it's a different level. I feel like I've got a good footing on it for next year."
If recent mock drafts hold any truth about the 2021 draft, the Browns linebackers room will likely host at least one more rookie linebacker next season, and Phillips is prepared to help them maneuver what could be another virtual-heavy offseason. He certainly hasn't forgotten about the tedious work he needed to execute a year ago in the combine and lead-up days to the draft, and once the pandemic clouded the country and shut down all in-person activities last spring, he needed to forge his own path toward how he prepared for his first year in the NFL.
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The 2021 rookie class might have to travel a similar path, but Phillips doesn't believe they'll need to change much about how any draft prospect normally prepares for the NFL.
His biggest piece of advice? Watch film from last season. All of it.
"It's more than just athletics," he said. "Make sure that as you're preparing, you're looking at your own plays. It's all going to come up. They're going to ask you a random play from the fourth game of the season from the third quarter, and they'll ask you what defense you were running. They're going to expect you to know what defense you were in, and they'll ask your teammates the same thing and see if your answer was the correct answer. Go back, watch games and watch film. What was your team's favorite play in Cover 4? What was your favorite play in Cover 3? All those questions are going to come up."
No matter which path the Browns choose to elevate their defense this offseason, they can rely on Phillips to take an even larger role as a linebacker in 2021. That's the natural expectation for any second-year player, and Phillips is embracing that trajectory to the fullest.
He's also embracing the benefits of having a little time off at the beginning of an offseason. After a year-long battle of learning what it takes to be an NFL player and piloting through unexpected twists forced by a pandemic, he deserves it.
"I'm very fortunate to have been drafted by Cleveland and be on to Year 2," he said. "I have a lot of things I want to get better at. I know the capacity of the player that I can be. I've got a lot of things I can't wait to get better at, and I can't wait to start grinding on them."