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New Patriots Jalen Mills and Nelson Agholor recall their practice competition in Philadelphia: ‘Iron sharpens iron’

Related: Film room: Nelson Agholor is worth every penny the Patriots are paying him

NFL: DEC 11 Redskins at Eagles

The New England Patriots brought some familiar faces back in free agency. They also signed a pair of players who were familiar not necessarily with the organization itself, but with each other: former Philadelphia Eagles Jalen Mills and Nelson Agholor agreed to join the Patriots within hours of each other when free agency week began.

They took different roads to New England — Mills came straight from the Eagles while Agholor took a detour via a one-year stint with the Las Vegas Raiders — but share a common history. They also share an obvious appreciation for each other as both pointed out during their introductory media conference calls last month.

“I like him a lot. I think he’s a very, very talented player and also an ultimate competitor. So, I’m excited for him to be here with us,” said Agholor about his teammate.

“Me and Nelson, we had some battles. I’m talking about, in camp, real steamy battles until we were going at it with each other. But at the end of the day, that’s what you want,” Mills recalled about their time together.

Agholor joined the Eagles back in 2015 when they picked him in the first round of the draft. By the time Mills joined the club one year later as a seventh-round selection, he had already established himself as a high-upside wide receiver option — one that was productive albeit inconsistent, and was able to be employed all over the formation.

Mills showed a similar level of versatility during his own time in Philadelphia. Through the years he evolved from a traditional outside cornerback to a defensive back capable of aligning in each spot within the secondary. In 2020, he regularly moved between box and free safety as well as perimeter and slot cornerback — all while also aligning up on the line of scrimmage at times as well.

They had productive seasons apart from each other last year, with Mills becoming a jack-of-all-trades for the Eagles and Agholor producing one of the best seasons of his career while playing on a minimum-level contract in Las Vegas. Their battles before that, however, allowed them to get to that point and later the Patriots.

“You want that competition at the end of the day, with those practices with the guy who is in front of you,” said Mills about the practice competition he and Agholor had going on during their four years in Philadelphia together.

“You know it’s not going to be every day you can dominate him. Me, I want a guy who’s going to be able to challenge me. One day I get him, the next day he gets me. And it just goes on and on. You know that saying, ‘Iron sharpens iron.’ And that’s what you want because at the end of the day it’s all about having that guy in front of you getting you ready to be able to perform at a high level on Sunday.”

While the Eagles recently took a step back recently and parted ways with head coach Doug Pederson following a disappointing 4-11-1 campaign, their “iron sharpens iron” mentality helped them get the most out of their players — including Mills and Agholor — just a few years back. This culminated in a Super Bowl win to cap the 2017 season, coincidentally against the Patriots.

Both Mills and Agholor played prominent roles that day. While Mills was on the field for all 76 defensive snaps and notched nine combined tackles, Agholor caught nine passes for 84 yards.

“That had a lot to do with my growth as a professional,” said Agholor about the game. “You know about how they prepare. You know that you can’t make mistakes; the Patriots don’t beat themselves. For me, how I prepared with my wide receiver coach and my offensive coordinator those two weeks was with that level of discipline. I think it allowed me to perform at a high level on that stage. Being in that environment helped me find growth.”

Despite playing on the other side of the ball, Agholor and Mills grew alongside each other during their time together in Philadelphia.

Now, they get an opportunity to continue doing just that in New England as well.