Now that the well-chronicled loss of Martavis Bryant for the season is behind us, the cold, football-related question concerns where the Steelers go from here.
Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey was re-signed. Most agree Sammie Coates’ time has come to fill a bigger role (as he did during the playoff loss in Denver). Though a tight end, Ladarius Green has a Martavis-like skillset and receiving profile that should help pick up the slack.
But there’s still a trickle-down effect – one that leads to… Shakim Phillips?
As the offseason roster stands at the moment, Phillips would likely fill the “No. 5” spot on the Steelers’ depth chart at wide receiver. The Steelers typically keep five wide receivers on the 53-man roster, so…
But there are other signs that point to Phillips maybe having a future with the Steelers. He was the only undrafted rookie from last season to spend the entire 10 months since as an active part of the organization – sure, it was on the practice squad only throughout the regular season, but it still says something that the team held onto him (and he stayed healthy) all the way through rookie camp, organized team activities, minicamp, training camp, the 19-week season and getting re-upped through a reserve/future contract in January.
The affable Phillips was grateful for what his first year as a professional brought him.
“I feel like everyone has different paths: I came into the league different, an undrafted guy, and I came in and I learned a lot more than what I was expecting,” he told me after the season ended. “I learned how to be a professional, how to take care of my body, how to do things the right way. So I feel like it was a great learning experience for me.”
Look, no one is declaring Phillips is necessarily a future star or that he will make a big impact this coming season – or even that he will so much as appear in a regular-season game for the Steelers in 2016. He still has a lot of work to do just to make the 53-man roster – and it’s very possible (some might say likely) the Steelers draft a receiver, which then bumps Phillips down another spot. Maybe they even sign a veteran free agent – almost certainly, they’ll bring in at least an undrafted rookie… and then there’s the likes of Eli Rogers (who showed promise before a training camp injury – enough so that the Steelers kept him around all year) on the roster to contend with.
That all said, Phillips is somewhat intriguing. He’s big (listed at 6-2, 204). He’s fast (his reported 4.45-second 40-yard dash at his Boston College pro day last year would have been competitive with the best receivers at the Combine this year). He has pedigree (Phillips was a four-star recruit with offers from some big-name programs coming out of high school six years ago).
He on occasion made plays and turned heads at St. Vincent College during training camp. Phillips is also, by all accounts and appearances, is well-liked and respected in the locker room and has earned a reputation as a hard worker.
“Everything happens for a reason, so I am here in this position for a reason and I feel like just by being here and learning was my reason for being here: learning how to be a professional,” Phillips said.
I asked Phillips what he wanted to work on or fine-tune over this offseason in his effort to become an NFL player.
“EVERYTHING!” he said. “Everything. You can’t just work on one thing – I mean it’s like a different level. You could just go back from going from high school to college, and then it’s another transition from college to the pros, and then it’s another transition from pro to All Pro. It’s just different now, transitioning and you have to kind of catch that learning curve as early as possible.”
Phillips was coy about goals he’s setting for himself in 2016. The next step in his professional career arc is to make a 53-man roster. Then comes “earning a hat” to be active on gamedays. But through an unfortunate circumstance this month, Phillips has more of an opportunity than he had before.