EAGAN — Harrison Phillips was trying to wipe away tears from his eyes quickly so he didn’t smudge his brand new three-year, $19.5 million contract. It isn’t every day that you get to change your life forever.
“I just sat there before I signed my name the last time and the tears were rolling,” the new Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle said in his first meeting with the Twin Cities media on Thursday.
New Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah began the press conference by talking about running into Phillips right after he completed the deal.
“I saw him right after he signed his contract... He was overwhelmed, his emotions,” Adofo-Mensah said. “He’s a big guy, but you also see the little kid inside of him, the 14-year-old that lifted all those weights and did all those sprints and did everything to get him here.”
Phillips grinded his way through his first three seasons in the NFL after being selected in the third round of the 2018 draft by the Buffalo Bills. He played a total of 798 snaps over his first three years and then jumped to near full-time duty with 473 plays in 2021. The former Stanford defensive linemen proved the Bills right for playing him more often, ranking 13th in Pro Football Focus grade among defensive tackles with at least 250 snaps.
His growth as a run stuffer separated Phillips as an impact player. He jumped from rating 89th of 135 defensive tackles against the run by PFF to fifth best in the league last year.
“I love stopping the run… I was a former wrestler, so just like, ‘Mano y mano’ – I’m not going to let you beat me,” he said joyfully. “I’m not going to let you push me back. I love that. I love that about the game.”
The burly new linemen said he texted fellow free agent signee linebacker Jordan Hicks and told him that his job was to keep Hicks clean and help him make the Pro Bowl — except, he told Hicks, he wouldn’t be able to attend the Pro Bowl because they’ll still be playing, of course.
Phillips excitedly talked about how he didn’t want to be a one-trick pony, only slowing down the run game. Last year he set a career high in QB pressures with 21.
“Any way that you can collapse the pocket and put pressures, hits, hurries – that stuff adds up,” Phillips said. “Even if you’re not getting home and not really getting the sack totals high, you can affect the quarterback by his eyes, his hands and his feet. There’s tons of statistics out there that say, ‘Hey, if you guys get a hurry on a quarterback, his completion percentage the next play is way, way down.’”
He talked about stunts, twists, blitzes and side protections and finished his thought with, “I love getting after quarterbacks.” He talked about playing head-up over the center as a true-zero and shading to the 2i and playing three-tech on third downs.
Phillips explained that he grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and his grandparents were born in Minnesota. He grew up watching NFC North football and talked about cold, snowy December games. He visited the Vikings museum and geeked out over the team’s history. He talked about how his mom’s favorite color is purple.
Can you tell that Phillips was still buzzing from his big day? There’s nothing quite like that first contract following a rookie deal.
Jordan Hicks walked to the podium inside TCO Performance Center with a different vibe.
“That guy is refreshing, isn’t he?” Hicks said of Phillips.
Hicks has been there, done that. The 30-year-old linebacker was let go by the Arizona Cardinals following three seasons of playing 1,000-plus snaps.
“I look at him, he talks about himself as a kid, reminding himself, thinking about how he was a child, all that he’s done to get there,” Hicks said. “I’ve got kids, right? I see it every day. I see the joy and the happiness and the energy these kids have every single day. It’s cool to put myself back. It’s been a while since I put myself back at the time when I signed my first deal and really sat there and thought about it and reflected. I’m at a completely different phase of life than him.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Hicks was having his emotional moment, signing a four-year, $34 million deal with Arizona in 2019. Despite his consistent availability and captain status with the Cards, he found out that you become too old and too expensive quickly in the NFL.
“The writing was on the wall,” Hicks said. “My situation back in Arizona, kind of knew something was going to shake…I’ve been through it before, I’ve seen it before. This was my second free agency. So you prepare.”
But Hicks’ experience, even with the hard parts of football, is something the Vikings wanted.
Coming off a year in which things grew toxic, culture is more than just a buzzword here.
“He brings leadership on and off the field, a great member of the community and somebody that fits really well into our culture,” Adofo-Mensah said of Hicks.
But the on-field part of Hicks’ experience is important too. He’s played in multiple systems in Philadelphia and Arizona and has flipped between being largely a coverage linebacker to ramping up his pass rushing last year.
“You’ve got to know how all the pieces fit together,” Hicks said. “I try to think of it conceptually, right? Like, what’s the full concept of the defense, rather than, ‘Oh, on this play, I’ve got this on this play, he’s got this.’ It’s the full concept. It’s a puzzle. Each piece has its place.”
While Hicks may be more weathered by the business of the NFL than Phillips, he seemed jazzed to find out that the Twin Cities aren’t just an icy hellscape. Picking a day to arrive that was sunny and warm by our standards probably helped ease his fears.
“My agent through the process of narrowing it down, he was like, ‘Trust me: I’ve never had a player that’s played for this team that has come back and said that they hated it,” Hicks said. “Every single one has loved it, and a lot of them end up staying there.”
Phillips and Hicks may be in different spots in their lives. One player is getting his big chance. The other is getting a shot at proving his old team wrong and his new team right. One is just getting going with adulting, the other has three kids. But they are both here to fill roles and help change the feeling within the building. They gave off the right vibes — in different ways — on their first days.