The oft-mentioned second-year jump is not just relevant for players coming off their respective rookie campaigns; it also applies to veterans entering their second season in a team’s system. The New England Patriots have several candidates this year.
Among them is cornerback Jalen Mills, who arrived in New England via a four-year, $24 million contract last March. Mills played some solid football for the team in 2021, and he is feeling better heading into Year 2 as a Patriot.
“Definitely feeling more comfortable,” he told reporters on a conference call last week.
“OTAs, we’re always gearing up. But from Day 1 — from now to last year — just going over the plays, going over the installs. My mind isn’t wandering and I’m asking a hundred questions. Now I’m asking fifty questions instead of a hundred this year. But I’m definitely more confident within the scheme.”
A part of the Patriots’ free agency spending spree last offseason, Mills settled into the starting outside cornerback spot opposite eventual Pro Bowler J.C. Jackson in 2021. He was on the field for 16 of 17 regular season games in this capacity, but Coronavirus protocols prevented him from suiting up for New England’s playoff loss in Buffalo.
His absence was a tough blow given that he had played some solid football up until that point. Being on the field for 84.6 percent of defensive snaps during the regular season, Mills allowed 37 of 65 passes thrown his way to be completed.
The former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back did give up a team-high seven touchdowns without registering any interceptions, but he settled down over the second half of the regular season to end the year on a strong note. Unfortunately, him testing positive for Covid-19 put an early end to his season and forced him to end it as a spectator.
Nonetheless, his 2021 experience as a whole was a positive one.
“I think I really just got comfortable within the scheme,” Mills said. “Two totally different schemes from the scheme I was playing in before and then last year. Just getting comfortable within the scheme, getting comfortable with certain guys.
“Certain guys do different things. Certain guys make different checks and knowing pre-snap if I have [Adrian Phillips] next to me he’s going to do something different than [Kyle] Dugger or [Devin] McCourty. Or if I had [Dont’a] Hightower next to me he was going to make a different check than Kyle Van Noy. So, that was the biggest thing for me: just getting comfortable within the scheme.”
The Patriots will be counting on Mills to play a prominent role within their defensive backfield yet again. After all, they lost Jackson to the Los Angeles Chargers and did not add a clear replacement through free agency or the draft. With slot cornerback Jonathan Jones furthermore coming off a season-ending shoulder injury, Mills is currently the only cornerback locked into a starting role.
New England’s defensive success might therefore depend on him showing some significant improvement compared to 2021.