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91 players in 91 days: Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips

A 2019 UDFA who has never played in a regular season game, Phillips faces a tough battle for roster space this summer

NFL: Preseason-Atlanta Falcons at Miami Dolphins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills lost a tremendous piece of their defense in linebacker Lorenzo Alexander after the 14-year veteran retired following the end of the 2019 NFL season. As a linebacker who excelled on special teams but was also used as a defensive lineman, replacing Alexander with one person is darn near impossible.

The Bills have a slew of players vying for the chance to replace at least one of Alexander’s roles this offseason. Head coach Sean McDermott has players of all different levels of experience to choose from in replacing Alexander, as general manager Brandon Beane has stocked the defensive shelves with veterans, rookies, and everyone in between.

In today’s installment of our “91 players in 91 days” series, we profile one of those young players looking to make the roster—perhaps as a special teams player to replace Alexander in that phase of the game.

Name: Del’Shawn Phillips
Number: 43
Position: LB
Height/Weight: 6’2”, 230 lbs.
Age: 23 (24 on 10/9/2020)
Experience/Draft: 1; signed with Atlanta Falcons as UDFA following 2019 NFL Draft
College: Illinois
Acquired: Signed with Bills’ practice squad on 10/29/19

Financial situation (per Spotrac): Phillips signed a two-year reserve/future deal worth $1.39 million this January. If he makes the 53-man roster in September, Phillips will carry a salary cap hit of $610,000. There is no guaranteed money in his contract.

2019 Recap: Phillips went undrafted following a solid senior season with the Fighting Illini, where he had 95 tackles and four interceptions en route to being named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten. Phillips signed with the Falcons following the 2019 NFL Draft, and he played in five preseason games with the club. He made 18 tackles, broke up one pass, and recovered two fumbles, but Atlanta released him when making final cuts. He remained a free agent until signing with Buffalo’s practice squad that October.

Positional outlook: Phillips is part of a crowded linebacker group that seems to have a very well-established pecking order. Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano will play nearly every snap if healthy. Veteran A.J. Klein figures to replace Lorenzo Alexander as the third linebacker in heavy/base formations. Tyler Matakevich replaces Julian Stanford as the special teams ace at the position. Vosean Joseph is healthy after showing some promise as a rookie, and Tyrel Dodson is another second-year player who benefits from not having a suspension hanging over his head this year. Corey Thompson played a large role on special teams for Buffalo last year, as well. Mike Bell rounds out the positional group.

2020 Offseason: Nothing new to report.

2020 Season outlook: Phillips is a long shot to make the final roster, and I think even that’s being generous. It’s clear that the coaching staff likes him, as they chose to retain him after signing him to the practice squad last year, but if you follow the money and the results, four spots are already sewn up in this group (Edmunds, Milano, Klein, and Matakevich). That leaves Phillips battling Buffalo’s 2019 fifth-round draft choice in Joseph, one of their core 2019 special teams players in Thompson, and a converted safety in Bell. That doesn’t even take Dodson into account, a player Buffalo kept on the roster despite allegations of domestic violence last summer. In short, Phillips faces long odds to make the final roster this year.