Few if any teams in the NFL value positional flexibility as much as the New England Patriots, and their 2021 legal tampering period shows this again. Not only did the team add versatile tight end Jonnu Smith and move linebacker Matthew Judon, it also brought a defensive back on board capable of filling multiple spots in the secondary: whether it is safety or cornerback, Jalen Mills can do it all.
Mills is therefore fitting the Patriots’ recent theme of creating a hyper-versatile defensive backfield alongside multi-faceted players such as Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant.
Name: Jalen Mills
Opening day age: 27
Size: 6-foot-0, 190 pounds
Contract: 4 years, $23.9 million ($5.5 million guaranteed)
Despite having appeared in 45 games during his four-year career at LSU, Mills had to wait until the seventh round of the NFL’s 2016 draft to hear his name called. The 48th defensive back off the board was still able to earn a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster during his rookie season and appeared in 16 games as a perimeter cornerback — a role that would evolve quite a bit over his next four seasons in the system: by 2020, Mills was as much a free safety as he was a box safety as he was an outside or slot cornerback.
While a nagging foot injury forced him to miss time in both 2018 and 2019, he still went on to appear in 63 regular season games and four playoff contests during his time in Philadelphia. Along the way, Mills intercepted five passes, notched one-and-a-half sacks, and forced a fumble. He also helped the Eagles win a Super Bowl, coincidentally over his new team. Back then, he was still seeing the vast majority of his snaps at the cornerback position. Now, he is a jack-of-all-trades.
What is his projected role in New England? Mills’ role in the Patriots’ secondary will be determined by other factors such as the future outlook for cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson. However, the expectation is that he will be a starter-caliber rotational option alongside them while simultaneously also offering depth at the safety spot. Wherever New England needs him, that is where he will go — similar to the role that veteran Jason McCourty, an unrestricted free agent, played last season.
Where does he fit on the cornerback/safety depth charts? With J.C. Jackson expected back this year on a restricted free agency tender, and with Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones also currently still under contract, Mills would serve as a rotational fourth cornerback. At safety, he would be part of a top-five consisting of himself, Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Patrick Chung. With McCourty and Chung both on the wrong side of 30, he might be groomed to help take over one of their spots after the 2021 season.
Does he have positional versatility? Yes! Mills proved himself one of the most versatile defensive backs in football last season, playing every spot in the Eagles’ secondary. He regularly moved between box safety (32.5%), free safety (23.3%), perimeter cornerback (22.4%) and slot cornerback (18%), while also aligning up on the line of scrimmage at times as well (3.8%). The Patriots could have him focus on one particular role moving forward, but they have shown that they value the ability to do more jobs than just one.
What is his special teams value? With the exception of an injury-riddled 2019 season, Mills usually was on the field for somewhere between 12 and 19 percent of special teams snaps during his time in Philadelphia. He has experience on the punt and kickoff return units as well as the two coverage teams, and also saw action on field goal and extra point blocking squads. While his defensive role will determine his special teams output, Mills should be expected to see some action in the game’s third phase week-in and week-out.
What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? As part of the four-year, $23.9 million deal Mills will sign with the Patriots once free agency official starts, he will carry a salary cap charge of $4.56 million in 2021. That cap number is the 14th highest on the team at the moment, which is more of a reflection of his back-loaded contract rather than his potential role on the team’s defense. In general, the pact is a fair one for a player with high upside but inconsistent performances on his résumé.
What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? Depending on where the Patriots project Mills in their system, adding him does not rule out the team going after a cornerback in the draft. While the first round might be too early for that, depending on what happens at quarterback, another Day Two selection could be in the cards given that Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson will both become unrestricted free agents in 2022.
One-sentence verdict: Even if the Patriots are not going to establish a positionless secondary, adding Mills gives them plenty of flexibility in their defensive backfield.
How would you grade the Patriots’ decision to sign Jalen Mills?
This poll is closed