From seventh round pick to playoff playmaker, Eagles CB Jalen Mills has come on leaps and bounds

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Jalen Mills: The most targeted cornerback in the NFL. If you’d have positioned that statement in 2015 to any NFL scout, they would have probably laughed and dismissed it. In 2017 however, it’s deadly accurate. The rise of the Green Goblin has been an inspiring story to watch develop over the last two season’s and it culminated in perhaps the biggest play of his career.

A seventh round pick out of LSU one year ago, Mills was first thrust into the spotlight during Training Camp after dying his hair green, something that would become a staple of his personality. Expected to be a purely developmental piece, Mills stuck onto the final 53 and wouldn’t have to wait long for his first taste of NFL action.

When Leodis McKelvin went down with an injury in week one, Mills was thrown onto the front lines and expected to make it out alive…and he did just that. As the year progressed, the rookie errors and tendencies began to surface, but with the help some attentive coaching from Jim Schwartz and Cory Undlin, the ceiling of Mills is only rising by the day.

With 3 interceptions and 14 passes defensed (doubling his rookie season total), Mills has even amassed 3 more tackles than his 61 as a rookie despite playing in one game less. Mills entered this season as the team’s number two cornerback while Sidney Jones rehabbed his heartbreaking injury…but even that didn’t last long.

Ronald Darby went down with an injury scare of his own in week one, forcing him to miss half of his first campaign in Midnight Green. This once again elevated Jalen Mills to the number one spot. Covering elite receivers and perfecting his off-coverage technique, Mills has come a long way since his rookie days.

If there’s one thing he’s never lacked, it’s confidence. The finger wags, the emotion, the swagger. Mills played with heart regardless of whether he broke up a deep ball or gave one up. But in the space of one year, Mills has become a reliable force in the run and been a pivotal part of the ‘bend but don’t break’ movement in the Eagles locker room.

“Technique.” Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said when asked about the biggest improvement he’s seen in the Green Goblin. “It’s one thing to have confidence. That’s just not the sole requirement for the position. There’s a lot of technique that goes along with playing, and I think if you look at that last play, he did a great job of staying square. Meaning his shoulders were perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. If you get turned, what the receiver there is trying to do is get you turned so he can come back for the ball. He could never get Jalen turned.

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I think every player makes a big jump from year one to year two, as far as knowledge of scheme and knowledge of opponents and things like that. [Defensive backs] coach [Cory] Undlin and Jalen have worked really hard. He’s haunted the hallways quite a bit, even on off days this year, just trying to improve his technique. It hasn’t been by chance that his technique has gotten better. It’s a lot of hard work that’s gone into it from a coaching standpoint and from a player’s standpoint.”

His technique was on full display on that fateful fourth and goal stand to seal the win over Atlanta. Of course one year ago, Mills faced the Falcons receiver during the regular season in a game that could only be described as a learning curve. Mills was dealt a few joker cards during the matchup after he insisted on getting aggressive at the line against one of the very best.

One year later, things were different. Lined up against Julio Jones, Mills followed the sprint-out as Jones fell before him. Mills then blanketed the elite wideout as he scampered to get to his feet and the back of the end zone. The pass still came his way and Mills made sure it fell incomplete.

“Jalen [Mills] had amazing coverage.” Zach Ertz said after the game. “I kind of saw that play coming when he got to the back of the end zone and it was sprint-out; that’s kind of his staple – the sprint-out play. And Jalen did an amazing job.”

It was never going to be an easy path, but Jalen Mills has overcome just about every piece of criticism thrown his way along with the many, many passes. First it was having his back turned to the ball, then it was struggling to take strong angles in off-coverage, and most recently the dreaded sluggo routes. The fact remains however that Mills has come on leaps and bounds thanks to the Eagles coaching staff.

“I think right now as far as the defense went, we just wanted to key in our assignments.” Mills said just moments after this highlight play.”

“The whole motto and the slogan this week was just do your job. Nobody has to go out there and be superman. Know what you have to do for one, then go out there and execute.”

That one statement sums it all up. “Nobody has to go out there and be superman.” Mills has been able to balance his in-game emotions, frustrations and jubilation with a focus on the task at hand. A one-play mentality. It’s hard to find in cornerbacks, but absolutely essential to be productive at the position. It’s scary to think that Mills is just 23-years old and his road is only just beginning.

 

Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

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