Jalen Mills was a jack-of-all-trades for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020: he regularly moved between box and free safety alignments, saw snaps as a perimeter cornerback and in the slot. Wherever the Eagles needed him, Mills lined up and made plays.
His versatility made him an attractive option in free agency, and the New England Patriots did not wait long to bring him on board: Mills and the Patriots agreed to a four-year, $24 million contract on the first day of the legal tampering period.
After his arrival in New England, the team’s secondary experienced considerable turnover. Long-time starter Patrick Chung retired after already having opted out of the 2020 season; Jason McCourty and Terrence Brooks left for Miami and Houston, respectively. Finally, earlier during the regular season, star cornerback Stephon Gilmore was traded to the Carolina Panthers.
The Gilmore trade confirmed Mills’ status as the Patriots’ CB2 alongside J.C. Jackson — a role he has flourished in recently.
Along the way, Mills has also won over New England’s coaching staff. Just ask head coach Bill Belichick, who likened the 27-year-old to one of his offensive teammates.
“Jalen’s kind of the defensive Kendrick Bourne,” Belichick said. “High-energy, always ready to go, very durable, tough, out there all the time. He has a good, physical style of play, generally tackles well in the running game, jams receivers and has good instincts. He’s around the ball. He’s done a nice job for us. It’s a different system than what he played in in Philadelphia, but I think he’s adapted to it well. He’s a good all-around football player.”
Kendrick Bourne, another member of the Patriots’ free agency class, has quickly carved out a role in the team’s offense. Not only is he the team’s leading pass catcher with 623 receiving yards, he also is an outspoken presence in the locker room — one that was dubbed the “Energizer Bunny” by center David Andrews.
Mills falls in the same category, according to Belichick. His positive attributes do not end there, however.
“He’s good in all areas and continues to learn a little bit more about the system that he’s in and also working with teammates like Myles [Bryant] as opposed to [Jonathan] Jones earlier in the year,” Belichick said about him. “There’s a little bit of getting familiar, getting comfortable with the communication, bunches, stacks, crossing receivers, things like that.
“That’s something that I’d say all of our defensive backs have embraced. Myles has done a good job for us, and they’ve all kind of fit together, communicated pretty well. Generally, decent coverage. Obviously, we’ll be tested this week against Buffalo’s passing attack, but Jalen’s been a really solid addition for us. I’m glad we have him. I love his versatility and his overall play style.”
As head coach, Belichick has to work with all of his team’s position groups. But even those not closely associated with the defensive backs have spoken highly about Mills.
Take inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, who praised his versatility as well.
“Jalen’s come in, has done an excellent job for us,” he said. “When he was in Philly, he played a little bit of safety and also corner, so that versatility is something that we covet here in New England. And his tackling ability is something that definitely stands out. He’s done a great job for us.”
Mayo also shared an anecdote to illustrate Mills’ willingness to help the team and set the tone for the rest of the players on the defensive side of the ball.
“Early on, building our relationship, I walked in the weight room and he was doing power cleans. You don’t really see many defensive backs doing power cleans, so I knew right then and there he probably belonged in our room, in the linebacker room,” he said. “Definitely a tough guy. It’s good to have him here.”
Mills has been on the field for 79 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps so far, and has played some good football alongside Jackson.
While he did have a bit of a slump in October, including giving up two touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys, he has bounced back well as of late. According to Pro Football Focus, Mills has allowed just 12 catches on 20 targets during New England’s six-game winning streak. Last week against the Tennessee Titans, he also had a crucial fumble recovery.
The Patriots’ secondary has played some impressive football even with Gilmore now in Carolina, and Mills’ emergence is a big reason why — both as a starter-level outside cornerback and as a locker room leader.