Howie Roseman and the Philadelphia Eagles placed themselves in a bit of a bind when they shipped former second-round pick Eric Rowe to New England for a conditional draft pick in September. While the move exiled another name from the former regime, it also left the team with little to spare at the cornerback position.
However, the training camp and preseason performance of rookie cornerback Jalen Mills gave the team enough confidence to pull the trigger on the deal.
Mills, a seventh-round pick out of LSU, fell in the draft due to an injury in his senior season and off-the-field issues. The 22-year-old was facing battery charges, which were later dropped, leading up to the NFL Draft. The Eagles, however, were surprised to see him fall to the seventh round and decided that his talent was well worth the risk.
Mills has come a long way since turning heads in training camp and fighting for a roster spot. Now, a starting corner for the Eagles, Mills is being matched against the league’s most talented wide receivers week in and week out. And the rookie is holding his own.
From Julio Jones to Steve Smith, Jamison Crowder and others, Mills has had his share of challenges in his rookie season. Like any corner, Mills has been beaten but hasn’t lost his swagger. The Dikembe Mutombo-esque finger wag each time he forces an incompletion proves that. For every time he’s been beaten, though, Mills has also beaten his opponent. The rookie has seven pass breakups in 15 games this season to go along with 58 tackles.
The Eagles defense looked like one of the top units in the league during the first half of the season. After losing cornerback Ron Brooks for the season, the momentum began to shift. Safety Malcolm Jenkins moved into the slot corner position with Mills filling in when the matchups called for it. Such occasions were against Cole Beasley and the Dallas Cowboys and the aforementioned Crowder.
The defense started to decline as the team’s record began to come back down to earth after a 3-0 start. However, Mills has remained a bright spot that the Eagles can build around. What may be a flaw one week, is completely eradicated from his game the next.
At the start of the year, Mills struggled on instinctively dissecting comeback routes, leaning too much on keeping his back to the ball and anticipating deep shots. Once Offenses began to plan for this, Mills changed his stance. The aggression at the line of scrimmage began to increase, he focused more on the quarterback’s eyes and against the likes of former teammate Odell Beckham Jr, began to perfect his craft.
He comes from a defense that produced the likes of Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. The Eagles are hoping they’ve found the third All-Pro to emerge from that defense.
One thing is for certain; Mills has the coaches on his side.
“I love the hell out of that kid. I really do. He is a competitor,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said this week. “People talk about speed, people talk about ability to play the ball. To me the number one criteria of playing corner is you have to be a competitor, and he is. He’s given up some plays this year. He’s made some plays and given up some. But he has never let it affect his psyche.”
The Eagles cornerbacks could see a lot of turnover heading into 2017 and beyond (and not in the way of interceptions – they’ve only had three in 2016). Nolan Carroll’s contract ends when the clock hits triple zero against the Cowboys. Leodis McKelvin’s cap hit is minimal in the offseason and he has been a liability on the outside. Additionally, the Eagles have Brooks, Dwayne Gratz and special teams standout CJ Smith on the roster.
To play alongside their corners, the Eagles invested $38 million guaranteed in the offseason at safety. Locking up Malcolm Jenkins with a four-year extension and signing Rodney McLeod to a five-year deal, the Eagles appear to have solved their long standing issue at the safety positions.
The cornerback spot has been a revolving door since the days of Asante Samuel. Mills, coming off a strong rookie season, could become the unlikely savior to restore stability at the position.
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