Jalen Mills, if anything, has never shied from a challenge. The Eagles probably wouldn’t have suggested a move from cornerback to safety without firsthand knowledge of this personality trait. They were the only team in free agency, Mills said, that courted him for such a switch.
In theory, there is enough to support Mills excelling at safety. He had played the position in college. He has a skill set that may be better suited for the job. And he spent four seasons learning from one of the best safeties to ever wear an Eagles uniform.
But that doesn’t mean that Mills will automatically step into Malcolm Jenkins’ considerable shoes. There are, of course, the obvious obstacles to learning a new position at the highest level of football. And a possible shortened offseason could compound that undertaking.
Replacing a mainstay, however, may be the most daunting.
“As far as the shoes I’m going to have to fill with the name Malcolm Jenkins, of course, it’s going to be a task,” Mills said Tuesday during a conference call. “There’s been a standard set there — you could go past Jenk to Brian Dawkins — a tone setter at that position in the city of Philadelphia.
“I know for sure it’s going to be a standard I have to rise up to, but I’ll be ready for it.”
Jenkins agreed. As awkward as two weeks ago might have been for the pair — when the Eagles almost simultaneously announced Jenkins’ departure and Mills’ return as his likely successor — the ex-teammates exchanged a series of text messages, with the former endorsing the latter.
“I think Jalen is a competitor first,” Jenkins said to The Inquirer via text. “So wherever he is on the field I know he’s going to compete. He’s a smart player who studies the game and I believe he’ll learn this new role quickly. Similar to me, I think when injuries inevitably hit the secondary, he will be the guy they can put anywhere, and he’ll do well.
“I’m sure you’ll see him at corner at some point during the season. I told him what the old vets used to tell me, ‘The more you can do, the harder it is for them to get rid of you!’”
Jenkins, like Mills, was drafted as a cornerback and initially played there. But he accepted the move to safety during his second season and as his career progressed, he kept adding to his resume. He was invaluable not only because he could play so many different roles, but also because he often knew where everyone should be on any given play.
“That’s the biggest thing with Malcolm,” Mills said. “Super smart guy. Very high football IQ.”
Mills, for the most part, played one spot with the Eagles — left cornerback. It was his preferred position and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz would get curt when asked about the possibility of a move to safety. But he would occasionally entrust Mills with specific chores.
In 2016, Mills was tasked with covering Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley in the slot. A season later, he followed New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. for an entire game. And last season against the Patriots, he filled multiple roles and even covered tight ends and running backs.
“I had fun that game,” Mills said. “I was around the ball almost every play.”
It was arguably his best performance of 2019. Mills explained that having more opportunities to make plays on the ball was one reason for accepting the move to safety. He also mentioned there being “unfinished business” with the Eagles.
Mills’ market was also slight. If he signed elsewhere to play corner, he would have had to earn a starting spot. The Eagles clearly valued him more than the rest of the league, partly because Schwartz placed great emphasis on Mills’ confidence.
The same could be said of his ability to transfer to safety. General manager Howie Roseman didn’t shy from projecting Mills as the starting strong safety opposite free safety Rodney McLeod. But as Jenkins proved, the position could be many things, and the Eagles view Mills as a position-less player.
“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,” Roseman said last week. “He’s played the position before, and when we were scouting him, he played the safety position against Alabama in a huge game for LSU.”
Mills played cornerback in his first two years in college. But during his junior season an injury to the starting safety and the struggles of his young replacement, Mills said, compelled his coaches at LSU to try him at safety.
“Coach just asked me … ‘You’re the only person on the defense who really knows the defense. We’re going to put you on the backside and just take care of the backside,'" Mills said. "And I think it was maybe my first or second play in, I caught an interception.
“The rest is history.”
Mills finished his college career as a safety, but he moved back to corner during Senior Bowl practices before the draft. The Eagles were noncommittal about which position he would play after they drafted him, but they started him at corner and he never left.
There were ups and downs. He became the full-time starter by his second season and would make memorable plays — the game-ending pass breakup against the Falcons in the playoffs being the most notable — as the Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl. But there were inconsistencies, as well.
Mills’ lack of long speed made him susceptible to deep passing, or to underneath throws if he played too soft to account for the deficiency. But he was a sound tackler and thrived in the red zone.
Covering tight ends and running backs rather than faster receivers should play to his strengths. But he won’t have the sideline to help him cover in the middle of the field and he’ll have to master more techniques vs. different body and skill types. He wouldn’t be the first cornerback to successfully switch to safety.
“At corner, it’s only so many techniques and coverages you can play over there,” Mills said. “As a corner, you know, ‘OK, I have help on the inside on this call. I have help over the top on this call. I have help, I can play underneath.'
“I think as far as those guys switching over to safety from playing corner, you kind of know where the safety should be or where you want him to be. And that kind of lets you play faster when you get to that position.”
He will also be asked to defend the run more and could stand to add more weight to his listed 191 pounds. Mills has always been a willing tackler, but he will have more run-gap responsibility, and in the Eagles’ scheme, that isn’t always cut and dry.
“It’s a lot different run fits that you have to know about,” Mills said. “It’s a lot of stunts that the D-line does, so anything can change at any given moment. … I may have the C gap on one play, the guard may pull or a tight end may swap over and I’m in the A gap or I’m in the B gap.”
Mills appears to have an advanced understanding of his new role and having toiled in Schwartz’s defense for four years already should help once the Eagles finally get on the field. But it could be months before that happens because of the coronavirus.
He won’t likely have as much time to work on muscle memory, and the same goes for the entire reworked secondary. McLeod and Mills will aid new faces like Darius Slay, Nickell Robey-Coleman, and Will Parks, not to mention whichever rookies the Eagles acquire, but there will be more moving parts than normal.
Mills spent all of last offseason recovering from foot surgery, however. He missed almost an entire year — a “roller coaster” year, he called it — which certainly played a factor in the lack of attractive offers in free agency.
“It’s hard not having a full offseason to where you can get your body in tip-top shape, whether it’s conditioning or running,” Mills said. “And then going into my first NFL game [of the season] off of two, three practices, I was really almost playing catch up and playing off of pure energy and joy that I was out there with my guys again.”
Jenkins is gone, though. He signed with the Saints a day after the Eagles declined the option on his contract. Mills, who turns 26 on Monday, wouldn’t call replacing his mentor daunting.
“I had a long conversation via text with Malcolm after everything went down,” Mills said. “That was my big brother. It always has been since I first stepped on the field with the Eagles until our last game we played with Seattle.”
But every new beginning comes from some other’s end. Mills has symbolically changed his uniform number from 31 to 21, if not his renowned kelly green-colored hair.