With the NFL free agency and draft both in the rear-view mirror, and the second phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are officially “on to 2023.”
At the moment, the Patriots have a full 90-man roster. Only 53 of those players will be able to survive roster cutdowns and ultimately make the active team, with others competing for practice squad spots. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take an in-depth look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping New England rebound from a disappointing 2022 season.
Today, the series continues with veteran defensive back Jalen Mills.
Name: Jalen Mills
Position: Cornerback/Defensive back
Opening day age: 29 (4/6/1994)
Size: 6’0”, 191 lbs
Jersey number: 2
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
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 — including a win in Super Bowl LII — during his time in Philadelphia. Along the way, he intercepted five passes, notched one-and-a-half sacks, and forced a fumble. His 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 playing all over the team’s secondary.
His versatility and experience made him a free agency target for the Patriots in 2021, and they ended up signing him to a four-year, $24 million contract. Playing primarily as an outside cornerback, Mills appeared in 26 games for his new club over the next two years. A starting member of one of the NFL’s better defenses, he registered two interceptions and a fumble recovery, but crucially was unavailable down the stretch in 2021 and 2022.
Stats: 10 games (10 starts) | 468 defensive snaps (41.4%), 8 special teams snaps (1.8%) | 31 tackles, 2 missed tackles (6.1%) | 45 targets, 27 catches, 333 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs
Season recap: After serving as the Patriots’ CB2 opposite Pro Bowl outside cornerback J.C. Jackson in 2021, Mills was locked into a starting role heading into his second season in New England — especially with Jackson having departed in free agency. He did not take over his former teammate’s responsibility guarding opposing No. 1 wide receivers, though, but instead was used more based on matchups; Jonathan Jones was the closest thing to a Jackson-like CB1 the team employed in 2022.
The start of the season was therefore business as usual for Mills. He did miss the Patriots’ Week 4 game versus the Green Bay Packers due to a hamstring issue, and later also had to see his workload reduced due to an illness, but usually was a regular in the lineup. He started 10 of the first 11 games of the season — all but the Packers game — and was on the field for a combined 67.1 percent of defensive snaps during that span (468 of 697).
Mic’d up Mills— New England Patriots (@Patriots) November 10, 2022
A gameday in the life of the @greengoblin. pic.twitter.com/wzyyhWCqsm
However, his outlook changed heading into Week 13. Mills popped up on the injury report due to a groin injury and was eventually forced to sit out the remainder of the season. The team had apparently hoped that he would return — he was never sent to injured reserve — but the veteran was unable to make his way back onto the field.
Mills’ injury was a disappointing way to end his 2022 campaign, and it also put some pressure on the New England cornerback depth chart. Luckily for the Patriots rookies Jack Jones and Marcus Jones were able to answer the call, starting with that game against Green Bay that the veteran missed due to a hamstring ailment. In fact, they continued to receive increased opportunities even after Mills had returned the following week.
His uneven usage was not the only thing inconsistent about Mills’ season. He also had his ups and downs in coverage (which also might have contributed to the rookies seeing more snaps): he ended up allowing 60 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed, while also surrendering a pair of touchdowns. Was he a liability? No, but he also did not make a significant jump in his second year in the system. The only major exception were his first two interceptions in a Patriots uniform in Weeks 2 and 6 against Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
What will be his role? While Mills served as a starting outside cornerback in both 2021 and 2022, his role for the 2023 season is TBD. There was some speculation earlier this offseason that he might see more reps at safety after restructuring his contract: with long-time starting safety Devin McCourty off to retirement, Mills might be part of the solution. Not only is he a versatile and experienced player, but he is also popular player in the locker room and a proven communicator. It would therefore not be a surprise to see him play a more flexible and matchup-based role between the cornerback and safety positions.
What is his growth potential? Mills has been in the NFL for seven years, and with the Patriots for the last two. No fundamental jumps should therefore be expected in the future, but that does not mean he cannot still develop and grow as a player. That is especially true if the team does opt to use him in a more specialized fashion moving forward: his best season as an Eagle, for example, came when he was employed in a similar way; maybe New England will be able to get the best out of the 29-year-old by changing his role.
Does he have positional versatility? Theoretically, yes. During his final season with the Eagles in 2020, for example, he regularly moved between assignments and positions, and ended up seeing at least 180 snaps at all four primary spots in the team’s defensive backfield. New England, however, has opted to use him differently since his arrival: over the last two seasons, he spent most of his time as an outside cornerback (77.7%) and only rarely moved into the slot (11.6%) or into other spots in the lineup (10.7%). As noted above, though, his role might look different in 2023.
What is his salary cap situation? Mills originally carried a $6.21 million salary cap number heading into 2023, but the player and team agreed on a restructured contract in mid-March. As part of that deal, the cap impact was reduced significantly and he now counts only $2.92 million against the cap: the veteran defender will play on a $1.75 million salary as well as a $625,000 signing bonus proration, up to $500,000 in per-game roster bonuses, and a $250,000 workout bonus. A total of $1.625 million of the deal — part of the salary and the entire signing bonus proration — are fully guaranteed.
How safe is his roster spot? Given that there were rumors Mills would get released before signing a restructured deal to stay in New England, his spot on the team does not appear to be all too safe. That does not mean he will not get a realistic chance to make it, however. His experience and positional versatility might very well be an asset in a post-Devin McCourty defense, and should allow him to carve out a role. At the end of the day, however, it will come down to him performing in whichever role the team has in mind for him.
One-sentence projection: Mills’ days as a starting cornerback in the Patriots defense appear to be behind him, but he might have plenty of value as a jack of all trades in the secondary.