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NFL free agency 2023: What keeping defensive back Jalen Mills means for the Patriots

In a surprise move, the team is keeping Mills instead of releasing him.

New England Patriots v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The New England Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick have always had a knack for making the surprising move, and Wednesday’s re-signing of defensive back Jalen Mills certainly also falls in that category. Four days after his release was first reported, the 28-year-old is staying put on a revised one-year contract worth up to $6.1 million.

Not all details of the move are available just yet — the contract structure, for example, remains TBA. Based on what we do know, however, here is our assessment of the move.

The Patriots have a plan in mind. Mills’ return comes with a twist: after starting at outside cornerback the last two seasons, he reportedly will be moving to safety in 2023. While it remains to be seen what that will look like, it is obvious that the team has some sort of plan for him in mind — either to help replace the recently retired Devin McCourty, or to serve as a more versatile piece in the secondary compared to his stint in New England so far.

For Mills, the safety position would not be entirely unfamiliar territory. Prior to joining the Patriots, after all, he played all over the Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary in 2020: he regularly moved between box safety (32.5%), free safety (23.3%), perimeter cornerback (22.4%) and slot cornerback (18%), while also aligning up on the line of scrimmage at times as well (3.8%).

That versatile jack-of-all-trades role fit him well: he registered an interception, notched a combined eight quarterback disruptions (1.5 sacks, 3.5 hits, 3 hurries), forced a fumble and finished with 74 tackles, including 41 against the run. It was arguably his best season up until that point, and put him on the Patriots’ free agency radar to begin with.

Now, he might be returning to those versatile ways.

New England bolsters its defensive backfield, sort of. Releasing Mills shortly after Devin McCourty’s retirement would have further thinned out the herd in the Patriots secondary. Retaining him therefore now helps address this issue — one that was, in part, created by his initially reported release in the first place.

Still, with him staying put the Patriots keep an experienced player who has the proven versatility to wear multiple hats in an NFL defense. In turn, he offers depth at both cornerback and safety.

If he indeed moves to safety, though, he will join a position group headed by Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and recently re-signed Jabrill Peppers; the three and Mills will be the core at the safety position. The team also has Joshuah Bledsoe and Brad Hawkins under contract as developmental backup options.

The Patriots’ cornerback group without Mills, meanwhile, is led by the Joneses: Jonathan, Jack and Marcus currently project as the three starters. The team also placed a restricted free agency tender on Myles Bryant and in addition has Shaun Wade, Quandre Mosely and Rodney Randle on its roster to provide depth.

Cornerback is still a major need. Regardless of where Mills ultimately ends up in the lineup, the Patriots remain in the market for cornerback help even with him back. As noted above, Jonathan Jones, Jack Jones and Marcus Jones as well as Myles Bryant are the current top options at the position.

While that is an intriguing mix of experience and upside, Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones and Bryant are all better suited for the slot rather than the perimeter. With only Jack Jones and the unproven Shaun Wade, Quandre Mosely and Rodney Randle as outside options, the team would certainly benefit from adding at least one more body to the mix — possibly rather early in the draft.

Selecting at No. 14 overall, the Patriots should be in a position to pick up one of the top three corners available: Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez, Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. or Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon could all be on the board. All three would make sense given what the team likes to do on defense.

Mills will be added to the Patriots’ 2024 free agents class. Mills originally joined the Patriots on a four-year contract running through the 2024 season. With him and the team reworking his pact, however, he is now scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency next March.

Mills will be in good company, with several other high-profile Patriots headed for the open market after this upcoming season — a group that includes safety Kyle Dugger, guard Michael Onwenu, linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Josh Uche, wide receivers DeVante Parker and Kendrick Bourne, tight ends Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki, and offensive tackle Trent Brown.