Jalen Mills moved back to corner Sunday night to fill in for injured Avonte Maddox, and he played pretty well. The sample size was small, but an armchair observer might conclude that Mills looked better than he has looked in any of his three starts at strong safety this season. And better than Maddox has looked opposite Darius Slay, frankly.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz didn’t endorse that view when he spoke with reporters on Tuesday. But Schwartz did leave open the possibility that Mills might continue to play corner, or at least move over from safety sometimes when having a 6-foot outside corner might provide a better matchup on a receiver than Maddox, who is listed at 5-9.
Making that option more viable would be the pending return from injured reserve of veteran safety Will Parks, who has yet to make his Eagles debut. Rookie K’Von Wallace and second-year player Marcus Epps split Mills' safety duties against the 49ers, with decidedly mixed results.
“Well, we’ll see. We’ll do what we think is best each week, depending on who we have available to the game,” Schwartz said.
Asked for an assessment of Mills' play, Schwartz said: “He embraced it, and I thought he did a really good job in that game. Covered well and tackled well.”
Later in the session, Schwartz said Mills' willingness to move back to his old spot while not yet settled in his new spot "was a really unselfish thing for him to do. He was still a developing player at safety, and making some plays there, and also having some learning on the job, growing pains at the position.
“But when the team was in need … Our corner position was way down, and we asked him to do it. It was never even a hesitation. It was, like, ‘Hey, whatever you need.’ He worked really hard during the week because he had been working on different things. It’s a different set of eyes playing safety and corner, but we’ll see going forward. … We’ll just take it day-by-day and do what we think is best, what gives us the best opportunity to win on Sunday.”
Eagles fans are well-versed in Mills' strengths and weaknesses at corner, where he spent his previous four NFL seasons. He’s big and physical, shakes off a misstep, and continues to compete. He also isn’t fast and falls for double moves. The Eagles won a Super Bowl with Mills starting at corner. They also gave up 505 passing yards and 33 points in that game.
Maddox is equally feisty, significantly quicker, and a lot smaller. Maddox’s Pro Football Focus grades for the first three games are concerning – 45.1 overall, 47.4 against the run and 47.0 in coverage. (It’s a funky grading system and not always the gospel, but PFF considers 60.0 the minimum for even a decent backup; anything under that makes you “replaceable.”) In 95 coverage snaps, PFF says Maddox has allowed a 116.4 passer rating and 14.5 yards per catch.
Mills' grades against the 49ers were his best of the season – 72.1 overall, 73 in coverage. (PFF considers 70 to 84 the grade level for a decent starter.) Mixing Sunday night in with Mills' grades for his three games as a safety, he is at 63.5 overall and 61.3 in coverage. In 166 coverage snaps, his opposing passer rating is 91.5.
Of course, Mills will encounter faster receivers, longer patterns and more double moves on the outside, which was part of why he was moved to safety. The corner opposite Slay is going to be targeted, because teams don’t want to throw at Slay (70.8 overall grade, 70.7 in coverage, 87.9 opponent passer rating in 171 coverage snaps.)
At minimum, though, some situational combination of Mills and Maddox at that corner spot, and Mills and Parks at strong safety, might make sense when Maddox returns from the ankle injury that kept him out of the 49ers game. That return seems to be at least a few weeks away.
Along those lines, the Eagles also should get corners Trevor Williams (ribs) and Craig James (thigh) back in the coming weeks, which could complicate the situation. Williams is new to the Eagles this year but started 27 games for the Chargers in a three-year span, from 2016-18, before suffering a knee injury. James has mostly played special teams for the Eagles, with the notable exception of a crucial play made at the end of the Eagles victory at Green Bay last year.
In addition to needing better corner play opposite Slay, the Eagles certainly could use stronger outings from their safeties. George Kittle, the 49ers' $75 million tight end, caught 15 passes on 15 targets, for 183 yards and a touchdown Sunday night. Kittle is a superstar, but the Eagles have been victimized by tight ends in three of the four games they’ve played. Parks, or Sunday’s pick-six linebacker, Alex Singleton, or someone needs to stop that bleeding.
“He made plays against our quarters coverage, against our [Cover] 3, against man-to-man, against blitz,” Schwartz said. He noted that Kittle also did well late in the game, with the Eagles playing Cover 2.
When asked if the defensive plan had been to let Kittle get his numbers and shut down everyone else, Schwartz managed a wry smile.
“We were trying our best to stop him. We didn’t have very much success. … He was just a tough matchup for us, and he got the ball a lot of different ways. … So that was hats off to him, and maybe a little disappointment from us,” Schwartz said. “We tried a lot of different things. None of them really had much effect.”