Staff, teammates high on Phillips

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Flattery comes in all shapes and sizes.

And for Tampa Bay Bucs strong safety Jermaine Phillips, it has come in the several acknowledgements from teammates and coaches that he is not John Lynch, and in the self-knowledge that he isn't trying to be the five-time Pro Bowl performer.

"You're talking about one of the greatest players in the history of this franchise and one of the best strong safeties in the league for a long time," said Phillips, in discussing his former mentor. "Now I might (aspire) to those kinds of things, for sure. But for me to achieve them, well, the biggest thing is just me trying to be the best Jermaine Phillips possible, and then hope that's good enough."

For now, Tampa Bay officials allow, it is plenty good enough, indeed.

With all due respect to Lynch, whose offseason divorce from the Bucs after 11 seasons was handled clumsily by the club, became embarrassing and outraged a community in which the beloved veteran had done so many good charitable deeds, Tampa Bay officials and coaches insist Phillips is the more diverse player at this juncture of their respective careers. Judging by the early results -- and we understand this wounds the legion of fans which adored Lynch but which also ignored his decline over the past few seasons -- the Bucs appear right-on in that assessment.

On the first snap of the Sunday morning "team" drill, Phillips crept from his station deep in the secondary, moved to the line of scrimmage, and then penetrated into the backfield from out of the slot to blow up a sweep. Three plays later, the third-year pro shadowed a tight end for 20 yards across the field, his coverage snug enough to force an overthrow. A snap after that, the former University of Georgia standout quickly filled an inside gap against an off-tackle run.

In fewer than a dozen snaps of what might have otherwise been just an innocuous camp drill, Phillips demonstrated his full range of athletic prowess. And he also displayed what he can do that Lynch no longer can and, in some ways, elements that Lynch's game never really possessed.

That might not be good enough for the loyal Lynch Mob, which might never forgive the club for the unfeeling and callous manner in which the star safety was dispatched during the offseason. But if the fans look long enough and hard enough at Phillips, and at the diversity of his skill set, they will see what most NFL scouts and personnel directors have already witnessed: The emergence of a young defender who just might be a special player in a defensive scheme that will highlight his myriad abilities.

Said one NFC personnel director: "When you talk about (Phillips), you're talking about a heck of a football player, man."

It is difficult, clearly, for Phillips to talk about Lynch because the veteran had been so good, on and off the field, to the youngster. In his rookie season, Phillips was invited to Lynch's home for dinner. Lynch had arranged for the pricey tailor who designed his own custom made suits to stop over as well, because he wanted Phillips to have some new clothes. A few weeks later, Phillips found the snappy threads, the first suit he had ever owned, hanging in his locker at the Bucs complex. It had already been paid for, not surprisingly, by Lynch.

"He was just such a generous guy," said Phillips, who phoned Lynch on the eve of the Denver Broncos training camp, to wish the veteran well with his new team. "You don't ever forget people like that, you know, who make a difference in your life."

Lynch won't soon be forgotten in Tampa but, on the field at least, Phillips could make a pretty significant difference in the Bucs secondary, which has certainly gotten much younger in the last few seasons. His elevation to the first unit marks the third consecutive year in which the Bucs have promoted an emerging younger player into a starting spot in the unit. In 2002, cornerback Brian Kelly supplanted Donnie Abraham. Last season, Dwight Smith stepped into the free safety vacancy created by the departure of Dexter Jackson in free agency.

The relative graybeard of the unit, seven-year veteran left cornerback Ronde Barber, insisted the transition has been more seamless than he anticipated.

"Maybe if you had players who hadn't been in the system, guys we were bringing in from the outside, it wouldn't be as smooth," Barber explained. "But Dwight Smith has been here and had played a lot of ball before he moved up (into the lineup). And Jermaine is the same way. It's not like he's some stranger who they're just throwing in there. He got a lot of playing time last year when John was hurt. He knows the ropes."

Indeed, the neck injury that limited Lynch in 2003, and the fact Smith had to move back to cornerback when Kelly was injured, meant Phillips started a combined eight games at the two safety spots. The exposure reinforced in the minds of Tampa Bay coaches that Phillips was ready for full-time starter's status. It also permitted the staff some time to conjure up methods for utilizing Phillips' athleticism with some schemes that Lynch may not have been able to handle.

Tampa Bay officials have become wise enough now, after the awkwardness of the way in which Lynch departed and the perception he had been ignominiously kicked to the curb, that they never mention the liability he had become in many ways. But they privately agree that Phillips allows them to do more with the position. And so a certain creativity has sprung up, like a cottage industry, as the defensive coaches seek out newer and better ways to make use of a guy they feel is a newer and better player.

And why not? It should be obvious, even to a casual fan watching practice, that Phillips has great range for a man his size. And while Phillips suggested that he wants to get more physical in his play, he is a very sure tackler, a defender who seems to naturally just be in the classic, striking position. Plus there is his size. Listed at 214 pounds, Phillips is more like 220, and it hasn't slowed him a bit.

"I kid him that, with five more pounds, they're going to send him over to work in our drills," said linebacker Ryan Nece. "You just don't see many guys that big who can run like he does, and do all the athletic stuff that he can. Look, Lynch was an institution with this team, a fixture, and he'll be missed. But, I'm telling you, Jermaine can be something else, definitely. People don't realize yet how good he really is."

The realization of how good he can be, though, is settling in on Phillips, a fifth-round pick in the 2002 draft. After the Sunday morning practice, he slipped into a T-shirt that, across the front, read: "Are you a playmaker?"

Asked how he would answer that question, Phillips smiled, and allowed that he thinks he is becoming one. And then there was this show of confidence: A reporter began a line of questioning by asking if Phillips had prepared any differently for this NFL training camp, knowing the starting strong safety job was his to lose. The youngster interrupted politely to put his own spin on the query.

"To tell the truth," Phillips noted, "I just thought it was my job to keep, really."

And, so it probably is, for a long time.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.