Jalen Mills didn’t know how he injured his left foot last October in London. He still doesn’t. The one thing the cornerback felt certain of, after the Eagles flew back to Philadelphia following their win over the Jaguars, was that he would play again last season.
“One hundred percent. I thought I was going to be back,” Mills said Friday. “At first, I didn’t question about the injury coming back off that trip. I thought it was just going to be a little sprain. But it was going on and on, and then I had an MRI, and it’s kind of been a little more than that.”
A little more would be an understatement. Mills missed the rest of the 2018 season, has yet to practice since, and isn’t eligible to play in a game this season until at least Oct. 20, which would be eight days shy of the one-year anniversary of his injury.
NFL players have missed as much time for foot injuries before, specifically Achilles tendon ruptures and more complicated Lisfranc sprains or fractures. But Mills, in his first extensive comments since his injury, said that he suffered neither.
“I just had a bad foot sprain,” Mills said.
There was a report last month that he injured his Lisfranc. The foot, however, is complicated. It has 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The Lisfranc, for instance, is one of several ligaments that connect bones in the midfoot.
Mills has been on the physically unable to perform list since the start of training camp in July and can’t return to practice until after Week 6 next month. But he said that a full recovery was near.
“I’m close,” Mills said. “I’m cutting. I’m running. I’m sprinting. I’m close. I think it is a good thing that I am on PUP right now, because if I wasn’t, then it would have to be on the team to have to deactivate me, activate me before every game.”
It’s been a difficult 10-plus months since the 25-year old left the Jacksonville game early. For the first month of Mills’ injury, Eagles coach Doug Pederson described the timetable for his return anywhere from “day-to-day” to “a little further away.” But on Dec. 8, several days after he was spotted in a walking boot, Mills was placed on injured reserve.
He had been hard to miss during his first 2½ seasons in the NFL. With his trademark kelly green-dyed hair and extensive playing time as a rookie, Mills was ubiquitous on the field and off. But like many injured players, he has felt like a ghost at the NovaCare Complex.
Mills had previously declined to say much of anything about his injury or return, which may have contributed to that perception. But there were many days since the spring when he wasn’t even out on the field to watch practice. Previously a willing interview subject, he’d slip in and out of the locker room unnoticed.
Mills, though, has been increasingly present at practice as he works with the training staff on another field or off to the side. His teammates said he’s been engaged at meetings since his injury, and he’s been assisting with scouting reports the last few weeks.
He may know this Sunday’s opponent and their top wide receiver as well as any Eagles cornerback. Mills has had his battles with the Falcons’ Julio Jones since his first season, and while the Pro Bowl receiver caught his share in three meetings, he never scored a touchdown in Eagles victories.
Mills has had his ups and downs when healthy. Most cornerbacks do in today’s NFL. But Ronald Darby, Sidney Jones, and Rasul Douglas – the Eagles’ current top three outside corners – haven’t done enough since last season to make Mills a forgotten entity.
“We get better when he gets on the field,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We’re just waiting for when that time comes, and he’s doing everything within his power to be ready. I think everybody believes that when he gets added back into the mix, we get better as a secondary and as a team.”
Mills said that the Eagles’ Week 7 game at the Cowboys was still his target date for a return, but he wouldn’t guarantee anything. How could he after the last year?
“Being as competitive as I am and wanting to be out there, you got to be mentally strong,” Mills said. “But I’ve been in this position before. I broke my ankle my senior year right before the season at LSU.”
On the last day of preseason camp that year, Mills had a lineman roll into his left ankle and fracture the fibula and damage ligaments. He had a permanent steel plate inserted during surgery and was expected to miss possibly the entire regular season.
But Mills missed only six games.
He said he didn’t know precisely when he injured his foot at Wembley Stadium a year ago. But late in the first half, after he tackled running back T.J. Yeldon on a screen pass, he lay face down on the grass and had to helped up by Douglas.
Mills stayed in and started the second half, but on the second play he pulled up lame and left the game.
“It was probably a bunch of things,” Mills said of his injury. “That field was a wet soccer field. It was muddy. And at the end of the day, it’s football, too. It’s kind of what you signed up for.”
The next day, in Philadelphia, Pederson said that he didn’t have an update on the Eagles’ injured players because of the travel. But when the team returned Nov. 7, following a bye week, the coach said that Mills would be evaluated “day-by-day," but also that he “might be a touch longer.”
Pederson would ping-pong back and forth between those timetables for the next month. But after further tests, Mills was placed in a boot and ultimately on season-ending IR. Mills didn’t have surgery, he said, until after the season ended in January.
But while other players who suffered foot injuries after him and had surgery have since returned, such as guard Brandon Brooks (Achilles), defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (foot), and linebacker Nigel Bradham (toe), Mills is still recovering.
“At my position, that’s what I use. I use my feet all the time. That’s how I run. I jump,” Mills said. “It would be different if I played quarterback, or if I was an offensive lineman. Those guys are not really exploding every time, every single play.”
Pederson declined to go into detail when asked Sept. 2 for specifics on Mills’ injury.
“The thing is with that injury, I mean, it takes time. It just takes time,” he said. “It’s a sensitive area, and this extra time will really, No. 1, give him confidence coming back and, No. 2, we are not risking the player to further injury.”
Mills has seemingly never lacked confidence, certainly after the Eagles selected him in the 2016 draft. Even though he missed half his senior season and had off-the-field concerns after being accused of battery, many draft analysts predicted that he would go in the second or third round.
But he dropped to the Eagles in the seventh. It was obvious, however, from the first spring practice that Mills could compete at the NFL level. He played snaps on defense in his first game, and by Week 5 had earned his first start. His only other start that season came against Atlanta.
Mills spent most of his day covering Jones. The receiver caught 10 of 16 targets for 135 yards, but Mills and the Eagles secondary kept him in front, and he never sniffed the end zone.
Jones did similar receiving damage in the next two meetings, but he didn’t get into the end zone, including when Mills broke up Matt Ryan’s last-gasp pass in the 2017 divisional playoff game.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has been maybe Mills’ staunchest supporter. He loves the 6-foot, 191-pound corner’s swagger and his short memory and has been tolerant of underneath completions as long as tackles are made and red zone coverage is sound.
But Mills will become a free agent this offseason, and the Eagles have invested higher draft picks in Jones, Douglas, and slot corner Avonte Maddox. Like his senior year in college, Mills won’t have the opportunity to show off his skills for a full season.
“I just got to make sure that when I step back out there I’m 100 percent healthy,” he said, “because I know when I’m out there I feel like I am the best, and let the tape speak for itself.”