Eagles Counting on Jalen Mills as No. 1 Corner in Second Year

Nobody could've predicted Jalen Mills would wind up the Eagles' No. 1 cornerback a year after he was taken in the seventh round of the draft. It's still a little difficult to comprehend now.

It's also reality for the Eagles in 2017. Mills is the only corner left on the roster who's appeared in more than six games with the club, and there are no big-name free agents or first-round draft pick obviously intended to supplant him.

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It's not as if Mills' rise up the depth chart is entirely performance-based either. His promotion at least in part by default; even the Eagles will tell you they need to see improvement from the 23-year-old.

"I'll sum his rookie season up - it was a rookie season," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "There were some things that he did well and he flashed. There were times he didn't play as well as we needed him to. His challenge is creating that consistency."

Mills played meaningful snaps in all 16 games for the Eagles last season, finishing with 61 tackles and seven pass breakups. He was targeted 91 times in coverage, allowing 58 completions (63.7 percent) for 9.3 yards per attempt and one touchdown - a 97.7 opponents' passer rating that tied for 53rd out of 79 cornerbacks, according to ProFootballFocus.

Not bad for a seventh-round rookie. Not good for a No. 1 corner. 

Yet if Mills can build on that effort, in addition to the upgrades the Eagles have made, the unit has a chance to be better overall.

"It's his second year in the league, and he's been through a training camp before," Schwartz said. "He's been through OTAs before, all those things, but we can't take anything for granted. He can't take anything for granted."

If Schwartz is projecting anything less than total confidence in the Eagles' current cornerback situation, maybe it's because Mills already has enough to go around. This is the same player who as a rookie reportedly asked to cover All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones in a win over the Atlanta Falcons last season.

"I've seen veteran players that don't want that responsibility," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "To have a rookie come in and who wants the best there is to cover, that's one part that you don't have to worry about is him getting fazed by the ebbs and flows of games or the ebbs and flows of the season.

"You know he's going to compete every snap, game in and game out, and that's hard to find in this league."

There's no question Mills carries himself like a No. 1 cornerback. The LSU product had the swagger down from the moment he arrived in the NFL.

It was about this time last year when Mills began his unexpected climb up the depth chart. His rapid ascent ultimately helped punch Eric Rowe's ticket out of town; the former second-round pick was shipped off to the New England Patriots in a September trade.

Rowe's talent hardly seemed to be in question, at least from an outsider's perspective. As far as the coaching staff was concerned, he lacked certain intangibles Mills apparently possessed.

"The thing I like about Jalen is he's very competitive," Schwartz said. "Even though he's young, he's a good pro, and he does make improvements.

"It's hard to be consistent when you're brand new at something, but that experience that comes from a year, getting out there and being thrown into the fire, he should be able to benefit from that as we go further down the road. I like where he's going, but he's never lacked for competitiveness. He's never lacked for work ethic. Those are things that he comes every day with."

"The biggest thing is his mindset," Jenkins said of Mills. "Playing corner in this league is not easy, and the biggest thing you always have to be is confident.

"That's one thing he's had since he's stepped in the building is that confidence and a desire to always want the No. 1 guy, to be challenged. That's probably 80 percent of the game. He's got the talent, so now it's just learning the game, learning the nuances of the coverages."

Like most players, Mills has a far better understanding of the job and what to expect in year two. He's paying closer attention to detail and learning to study, recognize and anticipate what offenses are trying to do.

"(Identifying) formations, checking the down and distance before every play - because that kind of tells you a little bit what type of route combination you're going to get, maybe if it's run or pass - and really communicating with guys out there," Mills said, listing the areas where he's improved. "I feel a lot more comfortable in that aspect."

Whether this all sounds good or not, here's the part where we reiterate Mills is a key figure for the Eagles defense in '17, for better or worse.

The Eagles lost both of their starting corners with the release of Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll's leaving in free agency. Journeyman Patrick Robinson brings seven years NFL experience to the mix, and Ron Brooks returns from a season-ending injury, while second- and third-round picks were spent on the position - though Sidney Jones may not be available due to injury.

Robinson is currently penciled in as a starter along with Mills. Rookie Rasul Douglas has joined the duo in nickel packages, kicking Mills into the slot. Clearly, there's a lot riding on the second-year player.

"I figure wherever coach puts me, my level of play has to be high regardless," Mills said. "That's just the type of style of football that I want to play at and that's where coach Schwartz or (defensive backs coach Corey Undlin), that's what they want the guys in the back end to play, especially me.

"I figure wherever if I'm in the nickel, or - in a certain package - on the outside at corner, I feel like my level of play has to be high regardless."

Having Mills as a No. 1 corner at this stage may not be ideal. He could grow into the role, too. Either way, the Eagles have little choice but to find out.

Mills wasn't bad last season, and while Schwartz is right, that we can't take his development for granted, it's reasonable to assume some growth. Then again, perhaps more than anything, the Eagles hope his attitude is contagious among the team's cornerbacks.

"We're just playing with a lot of energy," Mills said of the corners in practice. "You see guys, whether it was the first group, second group or third group, flying around.

"As a whole, you see everybody competing. I feel like that brings the best out of everybody."

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