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A new Silver & Black return man?

Darius Phillips can earn his keep as both cornerback and punt returner for Raiders

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Las Vegas Raiders
If Darius Phillips, seen here returning a punt for the Bengals against the Raiders last November, earns the punt return duties for Vegas this coming year, he’ll be worth the contract he signed in free agency.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If Darius Phillips takes over the primary punt return duties for the Las Vegas Raiders, which preserves Hunter Renfrow from taking additional hits on special teams, the free agent signee will be well-worth the one-year, $2.3 million deal he got this past week.

The 26-year-old can earn his keep both as return man and cornerback for a Raiders team likely to take a clean-slate approach when it comes to various parts of the team, namely special teams. Phillips serves as the Cincinnati Bengals primary return man fielding 25 punts and returning them for a total of 177 yards for a 7.1 yards per return average (a long of 17) which set a career-high mark for the four-year veteran. He also returned eight kickoffs for 169 yards (21.1 average) with a long of 32 yards.

Vegas’ punt return duties were Renfrow’s task — 31 returns for 303 yards and a robust 9.8 average — but it would be beneficial to the Silver & Black to have someone else do the honors. Renfrow emerged as a prime weapon for the Raiders offense out of the slot hauling in a team-leading 103 passes for 1,038 yards and nine touchdowns. Even with the additions of wide receiver Davante Adams and the return of a healthy tight end Darren Waller,

There’s unrealized potential in Phillips and perhaps that’s what made him an early-sign candidate in free agency for Las Vegas. The fifth-round pick out of Western Michigan arrived with an impressive resume by setting the FBS career-record with 12 total return return touchdowns. He was also a pesky corner racking up five pick-sixes in college to along with 127 total tackles and 47 passes defensed.

His four seasons with the Bengals was a far cry from his collegiate exploits.

Phillips did have an intriguing 2020 campaign that saw him snag four interceptions to go along with five total tackles. According to Pro Football Reference, he was a stingy cover man that year allowing only 37.5 percent of the passes thrown at him to be completed (16 targets, six completions). That resulted in him garnering eight starts the following year where he finished with 38 total tackles, one interception, 12 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. Phillips was charted allowing just 51.7 percent of passes thrown his way to be complete (60 targets, 31 receptions). This past season, he was a super reserve corner registering eight total tackles. He allowed eight of 11 passes thrown at him to be completed.

What’s hindered Phillips progress is availability. He’s been nicked up quite a bit over the course of his career so far, and in the 65 games he could’ve played in during his career, he’s appeared in only 47. He hit the Bengals injured reserve three times in as many years.

That’s not the only demerit on Phillips. In 2021, he was tagged with four fumbles, something that will send any return man, no matter how quality, to the bench.

But on a Raiders team that has new coordinators on both defense and special teams, the change of scenery and clean slate may just due Phillips good.