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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Versatility is the name of defensive back Jalen Mills’ game

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: QB Cam Newton

NFL: JAN 05 NFC Wild Card - Seahawks at Eagles Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the NFL Draft in the rear-view mirror and voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 88 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series kicks continues with defensive back Jalen Mills.

Hard facts

Name: Jalen Mills

Position: Cornerback/Safety

Jersey number: 2

Opening day age: 27

Size: 6-foot-0, 190 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2024 (2025 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Even though he had appeared in 45 games during his four-year career at LSU, Mills was forced 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, though, and appeared in combined 34 games as a perimeter cornerback over his first two years in the system.

While a nagging foot injury forced him to miss time in both 2018 and 2019, Mills still went on to play a total of 63 regular season games and four playoff contests during his time in Philadelphia. Along the way, he intercepted five passes, notched one-and-a-half sacks, and forced a fumble. He also helped the Eagles win a Super Bowl — coincidentally over the he joined as an unrestricted free agent earlier this year.

Back when he earned his first and so far only championship ring, he was still seeing the vast majority of his snaps at the cornerback position. Now, he is a jack-of-all-trades. That 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 cornerback or slot corner. He therefore entered the open market in March with no clear label, but the versatility to fill more than one role in a team’s defensive backfield.

What did his 2020 season look like? Despite considerable starting experience, Mills entered free agency without much momentum on his side after having missed time due to injury over each of the final two years of his rookie contact. He therefore eventually stayed put and returned to Philadelphia after a week on the open market. In hindsight, however, signing a one-year, $4 million pact with the Eagles did turn out to be a good business decision for the LSU product.

The 2020 season, after all, was arguably Mills’ best since turning pro. He did appear in 15 of a possible 16 games — missing the season finale on the Coronavirus reserve list — and was on the field for a team-high 1,013 of a possible 1,102 defensive snaps (91.9%). He earned his high playing time share by proving himself one of the most versatile defenders not just on the Eagles’ roster but throughout the entire league: Mills successfully lined up all over Philadelphia’s formation all year long.

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%). That versatile jack-of-all-trades role fit Mills well: he registered an interception, notched a combined 8 quarterback disruptions (1.5 sacks, 3.5 hits, 3 hurries), forced a fumble and finished with 74 tackles, including 41 against the run. Wherever Philadelphia needed him, Mills lined up and made plays.

While he was a bit inconsistent at time when dropping into coverage, as a whole Mills did show his value to the Eagles all year long. His usage on special teams is further proof of that: Mills played a career-high 82 of a possible 443 snaps (18.5%) in the game’s third phase, primarily on the punt return and field goal/extra point blocking units. He did not register any statistics in the kicking game, but nonetheless continued to show his Patriots-esque “Do Your Job” mentality and positional flexibility.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? Mills’ role in the Patriots’ secondary will be determined by other factors such as the future outlook for top-two outside 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 and free agency departee Jason McCourty played last season.

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 at least some action in the game’s third phase week-in and week-out.

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: as noted above, he regularly moved between assignments depending on the defensive call, and ended up playing at least 180 snaps at all four primary positions. 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 salary cap situation? As part of the four-year, $23.9 million deal Mills has signed with the Patriots in free agency, he carries a salary cap charge of $4.56 million this season. That cap number is the 13th highest on the team at the moment (and will jump to 12th once safety Patrick Chung’s retirement is officially processed), 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 and some injury woes on his résumé.

What is his roster outlook? Mills is guaranteed a spot on New England’s roster after being added in free agency, but his ability to immerse himself into the defensive system will determine where he will eventually line up. Based on his experience and the Patriots’ personnel available, it would not be a surprise if he played the Jason McCourty role: Mills would be a third perimeter cornerback, capable of also lining up in the slot and at either safety spot. As such, he should see regular playing time in multiple spots.