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Jalen Mills looks like the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback. Just don’t expect Bill Belichick to call him that.

Related: Report: Patriots cornerback Joejuan Williams to miss 2022 season due to shoulder injury

New York Giants v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

For the last few years, the New England Patriots defense fielded some legitimate No. 1 cornerbacks. Between 2017 and 2020, it was Stephon Gilmore taking on an opponent’s best wide receiver on a regular basis. In 2021, J.C. Jackson successfully took over that role.

With Gilmore traded last October and Jackson leaving in free agency five months later, however, some massive holes in the Patriots secondary opened up — holes that have not clearly been filled just yet.

Based on the first few practices of training camp, Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones project as the top options on the outside; Mills was New England’s CB2 a year ago with Jones having spent most of his career in the slot. Offseason acquisitions Terrance Mitchell, Malcolm Butler and Jack Jones have also been part of the mix, but no true CB1 has emerged.

Bill Belichick does not seem to be all too worried about any of this. The mere concept of numbering wide receivers based on a perceived spot on the depth chart is something the Patriots’ head coach is apparently not concerned about.

“Defensively you have who you have and you play with who you play with,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “Number them however you want that doesn’t make any difference to me. You have to put 11 guys out there and they have to play well together, whoever those 11 guys are. Number one, number two, number one tackle, number two corner, I’m not sure. I’m confused about that.”

The most consistent member of the Patriots’ cornerback group thus far appears to be the aforementioned Jalen Mills. A free agency acquisition last offseason, Mills was on the field for 80.4 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in 2021 while giving up 37 receptions on 65 targets for a combined 404 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns.

While those numbers do not look encouraging, they only tell half the story. Mills, after all, showed some improvement throughout his first season as a Patriot. Heading into 2022, he seems ready to make another jump.

“Jalen’s a very hard-working kid, smart, has a lot of position flexibility,” Belichick said about him on Tuesday. “We’ve used him primarily on the outside, but he’s played inside, he’s played safety. Probably can play any of those positions pretty well, but our depth at safety right now looks like that’s OK, so he’s worked primarily outside.

“But he can play inside and we’ve done that by matchup, too, that type of thing. If the guy he’s on goes in the slot, he would go inside and things like that.”

The first joint practice with the Carolina Panthers on Tuesday saw Mills at his best. He allowed just one reception on four 1-on-1 reps, and additionally registered three pass breakups in full-team work while not giving up a single catch.

After the session, fellow defensive back Adrian Phillips spoke about Mills’ growth in his second year in the system and potential to fill that No. 1 role that apparently does not exist in Belichick’s world.

“He wants to be able to take that next step and be the guy. He carries himself like that,” Phillips said. “He came in last year and he played well for us. Now, we move on from J.C. — J.C. goes out to the West Coast — and now it’s Jalen. He’s stepping into the role and he’s doing his thing. He’s out there, he’s confident, and he’s locked in every single day. ... If it’s time to go he wants to be the guy that they call on.”

Mills is a lock to make the Patriots’ roster, and at the moment looks like the closest thing to a CB1 that the team will have this season. Obviously, though, Belichick would never call him that.