After losing J.C. Jackson in free agency, the New England Patriots’ cornerback group has rightfully been under the microscope this offseason. Asking one player to replace the former All-Pro’s production is unfair, but the group would benefit from increased play throughout the depth chart.
or cornerback Jalen Mills, he feels his play can elevate as he enters year two in Foxborough.
“Just being more comfortable within the scheme, whether it’s man or zone,” Mills told reporters after practice Thursday. “Knowing where different guys are going to be in different situations, first-, second-, third-down. And just going out there and playing fast.”
Through eight training camp practices, Mills’ increased comfortability within the defense has translated to results. While it’s just been three padded practices, Mills has been strong in coverage, recording a handful of pass breakups and consistently making life difficult for opposing receivers.
Beyond playing faster, the familiarity with his teammates has made a difference for the 28-year-old as well.
“Lot better, just the verbiage,” Mills said of the communication. “Last year being my first year here, total new defense with different guys that I wasn’t use to and now having a full OTAs with those guys again and going into my second camp, its night and day.”
After signing a four-year, $24 million contract last offseason, many predicted the versatile Mills would assume a role similar to that of Patrick Chung. Instead, the corner was a staple along the boundary and across from J.C. Jackson last season. Out of his 914 defensive snaps, Mills aligned as an outside corner 689 of them. He’s ready to stick in that role again this year.
“Just playing corner. You never know within our defensive scheme - I come in one week and they might say, ‘Play in the slot.’ Or it might just be, like you're saying, play outside. So, I always keep myself refreshed, whether it’s nickel or outside. But as of right know, yeah, I've just been focusing on outside.”
Without J.C. Jackson, Mills could see a lot of opposing teams No. 1 wide receivers. If that’s the case, he is ready.
“That’s the standard here,” Mills said. “Corners here for the past decade, you have guys be able to line up play man-to-man, play zone whatever it may be. You got to step up to the challenge.”
Despite Mills remaining along the boundary, there will be plenty of change for the new-look Patriots’ defense in 2022. After opening playing time for the younger players and bringing in new faces such as linebacker Mack Wilson and rookie cornerback Marcus Jones, it’s clear the hope for the defense is to play faster.
“100 percent,” Mills said when asked if he feels the defense is playing faster. “Definitely within that linebacker core. You got Mack [Wilson], you got [Raekwon McMillan], Bentley, the young guys too as well, Those guy are flying around.”
Time will tell how the cornerback group and defense holds up, but Mills has certainly began 2022 on the right foot.