ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – Shaun Phillips spent a good portion of last offseason waiting for the phone to ring. It certainly wasn’t the first time.
A free agent heading into his 10th year, Phillips had been through the waiting game before – back in 2004, when he wasn’t selected until the fourth round of the NFL draft.
“In my mind,” Phillips said, “I was better than all those guys.”
The Denver Broncos came in with a one-year, $1 million offer in hopes the hybrid linebacker-defensive end could make up for some of what they lost when Elvis Dumervil departed following a much-publicized and messy foul up with the fax machine. Phillips has responded with nine sacks over the first 10 games, only 2 1/2 short of his career high, and has also proven a solid influence in a veteran locker room.
“For me, it was kind of shocking that more teams weren’t calling me,” said Phillips, who had 10 tackles, two quarterback hits, two pass deflections and 1 1/2 sacks in last week’s win over Kansas City. “I was coming off a good year. A few teams, obviously, made offers but they weren’t anywhere near what I felt like I deserved.”
Phillips has 78 1/2 sacks over his nine-plus seasons – a total, he points out, that is greater than every player from the 2004 draft class except Jared Allen.
“You always need some sort of gas to fuel your fire, though,” Phillips said. “Not everyone was out there saying, `We want Shaun Phillips on our team.’ It irked me a little bit, so you just go out and work that much harder to prove myself that much more.”
Recruited to Purdue out of Willingboro High in New Jersey, where he played defensive end and tight end, Phillips had visions of himself catching passes from Drew Brees in college.
But when Boilermakers coaches handed him the No. 53 upon his arrival, it was clear Phillips would have to make a name for himself on the other side of the ball. He finished college as Purdue’s all-time sack leader with 33 1/2, though that didn’t do much for his stock in the draft, in part because his size and speed – 6-foot-3, 253 pounds with a 4.66 40-yard dash – put him in that awkward spot somewhere between a defensive lineman and linebacker.
Among the 24 players at those positions chosen in front of him in 2004: Jonathan Vilma, Igor Olshansky and former Broncos No. 1 pick, D.J. Williams.
This year, it was a different list – specifically, the one with the names Dwight Freeney and Osi Umenyiora – that came up when the discussion turned to the top pass rushers in 2013 free agency. The Broncos were in the market, in search of a pass rusher to complement Von Miller, especially after losing Dumervil and his 11 sacks from the previous year to a tough negotiation that went south because of a timing mix-up on the contract signing.
Draft weekend rolled around and, after the Broncos had made no move for Freeney, Umenyiora or anyone else, many looked for them to select a pass rusher. Instead, they chose defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, then used their second and third round picks on running back Montee Ball and cornerback Kayvon Webster.
Also that weekend, a less-heralded transaction: The signing of Phillips, who had spent the previous nine seasons harassing the Broncos out of San Diego, including sacking Peyton Manning for a safety during their game in Denver in 2012.
Phillips became even more critical to Denver’s success with Miller’s early season suspension and the slow progress he’s made upon his return.
This year’s sack stats: Phillips, nine; Umenyiora, 6 1/2 with Atlanta; Freeney, half a sack before getting injured with San Diego.
“It was kind of a situation where we really felt like he still had some juice, some ability to affect the quarterback left in him,” Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio said. “He’s been a pleasant surprise. He’s been a little better than we’d hoped in terms of his impact and his leadership. Smart, tough guy. He’s a great communicator. He comes over and gives us good insight.”
The Broncos are pleasantly surprised. Phillips – well, he kind of expected it.
“Every year, I probably believe it can be a career year for me,” he said. “I’m getting better and better as I go and learn more. They give me an opportunity to rush the passer all the time here. In San Diego it was 50-50. I believe the more opportunities I get, the better chance I have to go out there and get a sack.”
Notes: The Broncos practiced in 20-degree weather with snow flurries Thursday – a good dress rehearsal for their game Sunday night at New England, where it’s expected to be in the teens and windy. … The NFL scheduling formula calls for the Broncos to travel to New England next season, which will make it three years in a row.
By EDDIE PELLS, AP National Writer
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