Missing Minicamp: Jalen Mills
When it came to replacing Malcolm Jenkins give the Eagles credit for thinking outside the box.
Whether it works or not will be the ultimate judge but moving Jalen Mills from cornerback to safety is an interesting decision and one born from the ever-changing landscape of professional football and the almost NBA-like idea of the positionless player.
More than anything else what defined Jenkins with the Eagles was his versatility and willingness to become the moving piece on the chessboard for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Acquiring a player like that is easier said than done. The Miami Dolphins hatched a similar idea for Minkah Fitzpatrick, for instance, and the former No. 11 overall pick from the 2018 draft balked at having so much put on his plate, preferring instead to concentrate on one position.
The loggerheads were such that the Dolphins were forced to trade the talented Fitzpatrick to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a blockbuster deal in which five picks were also moved, including a 2020 first-round selection back to Miami, which turned into Southern Cal offensive tackle, Austin Jackson.
The moral of that story is that even if you have the physical traits to pull off a hybrid role, you also need to possess the willingness to do it.
Circle back to Philadelphia and Schwartz has always loved Mills’ mindset, an extremely confident player who plays with a swagger. Not everyone could handle the difficult nature of this fan base which has put Mills through the wringer at times despite his ascent to being the team’s most trusted outside cornerback from a seventh-round pedigree.
Schwartz found out about the rest last season on Nov. 17 when he put together an interesting game plan to try to take away the in-breaking routes that defined Tom Brady during his latter years in New England.
The Eagles were coming off their bye week at the time and the extra prep time gave Schwartz the ability to tinker, and the DC ended up moving Mills away from his usual duties at left cornerback to better deal with what Brady leaned on the most, his running backs and tight ends.
The results weren’t what Philadelphia wanted because the offense was stagnant in a 17-10 setback, but Mills embraced and excelled in his expanded role. A mental note was made.
“I had fun that game,” Mills said during a conference call this spring. “I was around the ball almost every play.”
When the Eagles weren’t able to work things out from a financial standpoint with Jenkins, Schwartz pulled the Mills ripcord and lobbied for the pending free agent's return, but in a different role.
No one understands Mills’ skill set better than Schwartz and the Eagles were the only organization looking to move the LSU product to the safety position going forward. Every other free-agency suitor for Mills planned on keeping him at CB.
In a clinical sense, the move always made some sense for Mills. After all, that’s exactly what happened at LSU when Mills kicked inside for his final two seasons out of necessity. More so, from a trait standpoint, Mills is thought of as speed-deficient on the outside but plenty fast enough to handle things on the back end.
Even that is narrow thinking, however, because safety is just the “placeholder” for Mills who will move around to each table of the wedding on the back end of Philadelphia’s defense at times. Maybe not as often and as seamlessly as Jenkins early but the goal is to get there.
“We feel like Jalen is a positionless player,” said GM Howie Roseman. “He can really play down in the box, he can cover a tight end, he can cover a slot receiver, he can play out wide, he's got range.”
No on-field minicamp means there are no early returns on how quickly Mills will start to pick up his new role but there is a safety net in the form of Philadelphia native Will Parks, a free-agent pickup who moved around quite a bit in Denver.
John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Monday and Friday on SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, and every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on SBNation Radio. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen