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NFL free agency 2023: What releasing cornerback Jalen Mills means for the Patriots

New England is parting ways with Mills after two seasons.

Indianapolis Colts v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ busy Friday continued with the release of cornerback Jalen Mills. A 26-game starter for the organization over the last two seasons, the team will part ways with him halfway through the four-year, $24 million contract he signed in 2021.

The move does come as a bit of a surprise, further thinning out a position of need. What exactly does it mean for the team, though? Let’s do a brief assessment.

Cornerback is an even bigger need now. As noted above, cornerback already was a position of need for the Patriots.

After parting ways with Pro Bowlers Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson over a five-month span in 2021 and early 2022, the team did invest two draft picks in the position; Marcus Jones and Jack Jones were brought aboard in the third and fourth round. However, the starting roles on the outside were eventually manned by Mills and converted slot cornerback Jonathan Jones, with Myles Bryant in the slot.

With the exception of Mills all of them will be back in 2023 as well. The question is how the Patriots view their contributions given that the starting lineup at the moment would consist of Jonathan and Jack Jones on the outside with Marcus Jones and Bryant in the slot.

Given the lack of depth behind them — Shaun Wade, Quandre Mosely and Rodney Randle are all unproven — and the fact that three of the four are interior players by trade, the Patriots adding at least one body to the mix has to be expected. It would not be a surprise to see them do a double-dip in the draft yet again, or target free agency for more experienced contributions.

The Patriots part ways with a solid but somewhat unreliable contributor. Mills was the Patriots’ No. 2 cornerback on the outside in both 2021 and 2022, and all in all did play some good football in a prominent role. However, consistency was an issue — both in terms of performance, but especially when it comes to his availability.

Mills, after all, missed a combined nine games over the last two years to put his availability at roughly 74 percent. While that number alone is not bad, he missed some big games down the stretch and ended both years on the sidelines.

Combined this with some uneven play in between and a $6.21 million cap hit, and you get a perfect storm for a release.

New England loses experience and versatility. Mills originally entered the NFL back in 2016 and has played a lot of football over the course of his career. Between his stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Patriots, he was on the field in a combined 93 regular season and playoff games.

His value extended beyond experience: Mills also offered plenty of versatility, at least in theory. While he did line up all over the formation in his final season with the Eagles, he was used primarily as an outside cornerback after joining the Patriots. That said, with safety Devin McCourty retiring, he was seen as a potential part of the efforts to replace him — something he himself alluded to just this week.

This might be a positive sign for Jack Jones. The Patriots’ cornerback questions this offseason were manifold: not only were Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant free agents, sophomore Jack Jones was also coming off a strange end to his otherwise promising rookie season.

The fourth-round pick, who did show starter potential, was suspended down the stretch for rumored tardiness in his recovery process. A grievance is still ongoing, leaving his status very much in question. That said, Mills getting released might be seen as a positive when it comes to his availability for the 2023 season and beyond.

Having Jones would be a positive for the Patriots: he is a young cornerback on a cost-controlled contract who is a realistic candidate for that famous second-year jump.

Releasing Mills creates significant salary cap relief. As noted above, Mills carried a $6.21 million salary cap hit into the 2023 offseason. Most of it is now off the books: releasing him has created net cap savings of $4.09 million versus a dead money charge of $1.25 million.

According to salary cap expert Miguel Benzan, New England now has $23.47 million in cap space to work with six moves yet to be accounted for.