Jalen Mills hasn’t really replaced Malcolm Jenkins for the Eagles this season.
In one sense, he has. Mills is starting at strong safety, the position Jenkins vacated when he signed with the Saints last spring, six seasons after leaving New Orleans to sign here. Though Mills has had to slide back to corner here and there because of injuries, he is doing a decent job of making the transition. He has an overall Pro Football Focus grade of 66.1 – 57.8 as a run defender, 79.1 as a blitzer, 65.5 in coverage, and 64.6 in tackling.
In New Orleans this season, Jenkins' numbers are 61.6, 68.2, 63.1, 56.3, and 66.4. Jenkins, who turns 33 next month, has the edge on Mills only in run defense and tackling.
There was no way that Mills, 26, in his first season converting from cornerback, could be as knowledgeable and versatile as Jenkins was. Nor could he be as big a figure in the community or in the fight for racial justice, or be the defensive leader Jenkins grew into during his time here.
Rodney McLeod, the other starting safety, has shouldered some of that load in the locker room and in the community. And some of it, the Eagles frankly haven’t done a good job of handling. It’s one reason other teams are scoring touchdowns at a 69.23% rate in the Eagles' red zone, the highest number in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s five seasons.
Also at a five-year high is the goal-to-go touchdown rate (80%). As Schwartz has noted, teams are running the ball for touchdowns more than ever against his Eagles unit – 11 rushing touchdowns in eight games for a defense that allowed 13 all last season, and 17 for the 2017 and ’18 seasons combined.
The difference in savvy and physicality between Mills and Jenkins isn’t the whole story, but it plays a part. Mills said last month that pre-snap communication has to get better in the red zone.
“Malcolm obviously did a lot for us. He filled a lot of different roles, and we’ve had to fill those roles with a lot of different faces, and I don’t think it’s just in the back end. We’ve got a lot of different faces on defense as far as those situations are concerned,” safeties coach Tim Hauck said the other day. "So there’s a lot of different guys filling new roles and kind of feeling their way along, and I think we’ve made strides there, and I think we’re improving there.
“Again, Malcolm is with another team now. We’re going to push forward. You don’t find one guy to fill those roles. We’ve got multiple guys that are filling the same role that he did in one. I steadily see progress with that. I think our communication is getting better, and I think the way we’re playing is better.”
When he was asked to make the switch after four years at corner, Mills said, he didn’t think there would be much of a problem since he’d played a quasi-safety role in gimmick defenses before. Now that he’s had half a season of actually doing it, he sees at least one aspect that is very different.
“I would say the biggest thing is always communicating,” Mills said. “I may be on a tight end or a slot receiver, and I know exactly what he’s going to do. He may motion. I know the coverage and everything, and at corner I could just sit out there and play my coverage. But now it’s me communicating with the linebacker, communicating to the corner on my side, maybe even something where I have to tell the defensive end or the defensive tackle on a certain stunt or certain blitz.”
Mills and everyone on the defense had a rough day in the 37-19 Week 2 loss to the Rams, the Eagles' most lopsided setback of the season. A few days later, after former Eagles defensive end Chris Long opined on his podcast that there was a “void” at safety and in leadership, Mills said he was tired of hearing talk about Jenkins.
“Malcolm doesn’t play for us, so people can get that out of their heads,” Mills said. “So much respect for him and what he’s done for not only me but this team and this organization. But, I mean, as far as [stopping the run] goes, that’s just us as a defense. Get those kinks. Fix them, and get over it.”
Hauck, when asked how Mills has done in the first half of the season, said: "I don’t think that’s ever an easy transition. There isn’t a lot of guys that have been able to make that transition and been overly successful. Obviously, there’s some in the league that have done that. Malcolm’s one of them [after having been drafted as a first-round corner by the Saints in 2009].
“But [Mills] played some safety in college. We saw his physical ability at corner, saw he would tackle. The transition’s been good. It’s not just automatic. He’s worked really hard at it. I give him a lot of credit. And I still think it’s a work in progress. We’re still ironing out some things with his play, but I think he’s done a nice job.”
Will Parks, the veteran free-agent safety the Eagles signed in the offseason, has played both corner and safety in his career. Parks said Friday that he has talked to Mills about nuances, such as “little pointers on getting keys on the tackles … pass keys, run keys. Obviously, the quarterback looks different when you’re kind of in the middle of the field, and stuff like that."
“I think he’s done pretty well," said Parks, who seemingly was signed at least in part as insurance against Mills' either not adjusting well, or getting injured. “If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be playing.”
It was convenient for the Eagles that Mills could go outside into Avonte Maddox’s corner spot and do a respectable job when Maddox missed three games with an ankle injury. It didn’t help make Mills a better safety, though.
Mills said he prides himself on being a complete defensive back, and he added that the coaching staff does a good job of letting him know early in the week on which area to focus. “Telling me, like, ‘Hey, when you’re watching film this week, watch it at cornerback. Don’t watch it at safety.’ … instead of just throwing me out there.”
Hauck noted that Maddox had to do the same thing in 2018 as a rookie when a tsunami of injuries hit the secondary. These things happen, but, “It’s not going to be beneficial with his progression at safety,” Hauck said.
"It’s obviously something we’ve had to do, but he’s done a nice job jumping back and forth. I just think that the more reps he gets at the safety position, the more productive he’s going to be and the more comfortable he’s going to get. He steadily continues to be making those strides.
“If we can stay healthy and leave him in that spot, he’s going to be an effective strong safety for us in the future.”