Underdogs of the Eagles: Jalen Mills

By Paul Bowman, Sports Talk Philly Staff

Leading up to the Eagles playing the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII on February 4, Sports Talk Philly and Eagledelphia will be taking a look at the unsung players on the Eagles roster that have made their unlikely season and playoff run to the Super Bowl possible. This is Underdogs of the Eagles.

In this edition we will focus on the Green Goblin, cornerback Jalen Mills.

College Career

Mills was a good player for the LSU Tigers, playing 46 games in his four years at the university. Mills proved to be a good defensive back for the team over that time. Swapping between cornerback and safety, Mills put up 216 tackles (eight for loss), four sacks and six interceptions.

Despite all those stats, NFL teams had concerns about him. In addition to good cornerback play not always translating from college to the pros, Mills suffered a fractured fibula and multiple torn ligaments in his ankle at the beginning of his Senior year that sidelined him for half of the regular season.

And it got worse from there.

On June 11, 2014, Mills was charged with second-degree felony battery. Although the charges were eventually lessened and removed from his record, NFL teams are not too keen to take on those who may have character issues and present a problem in the locker room.

All of that resulted in Mills falling in the draft. Since 2010, LSU has had 12 other secondary players selected in the NFL draft. Five were selected in the first round, one in the second, three in the third, two in the fourth, and one in the fifth. Then there is Mills – who fell to the seventh, and final, round.

2016-17 Philadelphia Eagles Campaign

When the Eagles took a chance on Mills in the seventh round, there was some excitement as to how he could develop. That excitement all but died out by the end of the season as he was given a grade of 34.5 by Pro Football Focus – the worst grade of any cornerback in 2016. On a team that had their Achilles heel in the secondary, Mills was the worst member of that unit.

Although his season may not have impressed many analysts and fans, he was still going up against receivers like Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant. His teammates and coaches were aware of that and had a great deal of faith in him.

Malcolm Jenkins, the team’s leader in the secondary, professed his faith in Mills following the season:

“I know we’ve got a lot of faith in Jalen Mills”, he said . “I’m excited to watch him really mature into a starting cornerback, because I think he’s going to have a breakout season.”

The coaches were on the same page with head coach Doug Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz pledging their faith in the young corner. Pederson discussing his work ethic, proclaiming, “I love the aggression that he has playing that position and he doesn’t back down from any of our veteran receivers or tight ends or any of the guys that you normally might see on a normal basis might do that. He’s challenging guys. He’s got great quickness and transition in and out of breaks, smart kid, eager to learn. Those are things that really have stood out with me” and Schwartz taking the simple approach stating that “He’s a very good athlete, he can play the ball and is comfortable being on an island”.

2017-18 Philadelphia Eagles Campaign

After spending an entire offseason hearing that he was the worst cornerback in all of the NFL, Mills arrived at training camp ready to play. He was the only corner that was basically assured a starting job, outperforming anyone else in training camp.

Schwartz, who was already impressed with Mills at the end of his rookie campaign, was even more impressed through the first few weeks of training camp.

”I think Jalen Mills is one of the most improved players on our team… [He] played the deep ball very well. He's that quintessential "take a big jump the second year" guy, at least he's been so far.”

Then the Eagles acquired Ronald Darby.

Mills showed great confidence despite the fact that the trade had made him a potential backup. He won the starting job opposite Darby and played well, even advancing to the team’s top corner on the depth chart when Darby was placed on IR.

''Nobody had to coach him on confidence and the ability to bounce back,” safety Malcolm Jenkins told the media. “He's got really thick skin; he's a perfectionist when it comes to his technique and wanting to compete. So I think those things are going to help him out.''

Mills was thought by many to be a weak link on the team. That opposing teams would constantly target him. They thought he was going to give up so many yards that the Eagles’ offense wouldn’t be able to keep pace with the points he was allowing. Instead, he played at a high level and was the steadiest cornerback on the Eagles roster, even taking center stage to shut down Julio Jones on the 4th and goal stop against the Atlanta Falcons in order to clinch a berth to the NFC Championship game.

It would be wrong to leave out mentioning the fact that, on the play that would decide the game, the Eagles staff and players had enough faith in Mills that they left him on Jones alone, with no backup.

That’s Julio Jones – who had the second most receiving yards in the league behind only Antonio Brown. When the season was on the line, the Eagles knew Mills could cover him. A true testament to the strides he had made since being the “worst cornerback in the NFL” just one season ago. It is the players and stories like Mills that have made this incredible season possible.

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