With the NFL Draft in the books and voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with defensive back Jalen Mills.
Name: Jalen Mills
Position: Cornerback/Defensive back
Jersey number: 2
Opening day age: 28
Size: 6-foot-0, 190 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2024 (2025 UFA)
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 2016 NFL Draft to hear his name called. Despite 47 other defensive backs coming off the board before him, he was still able to earn a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster during his rookie season and became a regular contributor as a perimeter cornerback and part-time special teamer.
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 — numbers that are a reflection of how his usage changed over the years. Mills started his career as an Eagle at the cornerback position, but by the 2020 season was a jack-of-all-trades in the team’s secondary.
His versatility made him a target for the Patriots last offseason, and the team ended up signing him to a multi-year free agency contract. Mills appeared in 16 games for his new club in 2021, primarily aligning at the cornerback position. New England’s history with the defender extends beyond his current employment, though: he also was part of the Eagles team that beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII; Mills earned his lone championship ring that day.
What did his 2021 season look like? After spending the 2020 season under a one-year contract with the Eagles, Mills was scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency in March. It did not take long for him to find a new team, though: just hours into the so-called legal tampering period, he signed a four-year contract with the Patriots with a total value of $24 million. The deal guaranteed him a spot on New England’s roster for the foreseeable future, and further bolstered a secondary already among the deepest in football.
Nonetheless, Mills’ outlook heading into training camp was an unclear one: Would he primarily play cornerback or safety, or would he be a matchup-specific player with no clearly-defined position? Turns out that the cornerback spot was the one the Patriots had in mind for him. With veteran Stephon Gilmore on the physically unable to perform list, the team inserted Mills into the starting lineup as the outside corner opposite future Pro Bowl selection J.C. Jackson.
While Mills had his ups and downs both in training camp and early on in the regular season, his starting spot never appeared to be in question; his status was later confirmed by Gilmore getting traded to Carolina in early October. The sixth-year man eventually was able to turn his campaign around and towards the end of the regular season played some quality football as New England’s CB2 behind Jackson. Unfortunately, the NFL’s Covid-19 protocols kept him out of the team’s playoff opener in Buffalo.
All in all, Mills’ first year with the Patriots saw him appear in 16 of a possible 18 games; he missed both the wild card loss to the Bills (Covid-19) as well as a Week 5 game versus the Houston Texans (hamstring). In total, he was on the field for 913 of a possible 1,135 defensive snaps (80.4%) while giving up 37 receptions on 65 targets for a combined 404 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. He additionally registered 47 tackles — 16 of them versus the run — as well as one recovered fumble.
The numbers as a whole do not look pretty. As noted above, however, Mills showed some strides down the stretch and gave the Patriots a solid starting tandem together with Jackson. Just look at it this way: over the first 10 weeks of the regular season, he had five games giving up a passer rating above 100; over the final eight he had just one such contest. Passer rating is far from the be-all and end-all of cornerback analysis, but it still illustrates that Mills was a player who showed some improvement as the year went along.
What is his projected role? Mills was as much a free safety as he was a box safety as he was an outside cornerback or slot corner during his final season in Philadelphia, but the Patriots used him differently in 2021. He was primarily a perimeter cornerback and as such spent three fourths of his snaps on the outside of the formation. The expectation is that his usage will not drastically change this year, especially given the current transitory state of New England’s cornerback position and his status as a starter.
Does he have positional versatility? Mills has considerable experience lining up all over the secondary. During his final season with the Eagles in 2020, for example, he regularly moved between assignments depending on the play call and ended up seeing at least 180 snaps at all four primary positions in the team’s defensive backfield. New England, however, used him differently: as noted above, he spent most of his time as an outside cornerback (75.6%) and only rarely moved into the slot (12.6%) or into other spots (11.8%). The Patriots also used him on all three downs, and both in man and zone coverage shells.
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. The Patriots, again, opted for a different approach: Mills saw action on the kickoff coverage team, the punt return squad and the field goal and extra point blocking unit but played only 17 special teams snaps all year (of 464; 3.7%). Based on his prominent defensive role, however, his usage should not come as a surprise. A change should therefore not be expected for 2022.
What is his salary cap situation? As part of the four-year, $24 million free agency contract he signed with the Patriots, Mills is on New England’s books with a salary cap charge of $6.07 million for the 2022 season: he is playing on a $4.5 million salary — $3.5 million of which fully guaranteed — and will earn his $625,000 signing bonus proration as well as per-game roster bonuses of up to $1 million (with $941,176 classified as likely to be earned). Mills’ cap number is the 10th highest on the team at the moment.
How safe is his roster spot? Mills’ spot on the New England roster is very much set in stone not just due to the structure of his contract. He also played some solid football towards the end of the 2021 season, while the Patriots’ cornerback position as a whole experienced some considerable turnover over the last eight months: with both J.C. Jackson and Stephon Gilmore gone, he is currently projected as the top option on the outside cornerback depth chart. While not a classic CB1 by any means and likely not a candidate to take on opposing top wide receivers on an island, he will play a starter-level role yet again.
One-sentence projection: Mills will be on the field for a majority of New England’s defensive snaps in 2022, and therefore play a valuable role within the team’s new-look secondary.