The New England Patriots have found their CB1 in Jalen Mills

Jul 30, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills (2) walks to the practice field at the Patriots training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 30, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills (2) walks to the practice field at the Patriots training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports /

With the Patriots losing J.C. Jackson in free agency, there was urgency in finding his replacement. And it looks like Jalen Mills has already taken over.

After the Patriots traded Stephon Gilmore to the Panthers mid-season, concerns began to circulate regarding the future of the team’s secondary.

It was well-known that fellow star cornerback, J.C. Jackson, was playing on the last year of his contract, and would likely be looking for a lucrative contract elsewhere.

Once free agency began this spring, Jackson got exactly what he was hoping for, with a massive five-year contract with the L.A. Chargers. This left the Patriots in a vulnerable state, having lost both of their shut-down corners in just one season.

But during the season, when Gilmore was said to be unable to play, Bill Belichick made the wise decision to have newly signed Jalen Mills fill in. He would continue playing outside corner opposite Jackson for the rest of the season, the most he’s had at the position since 2019.

It was thought he was originally brought in to play safety, to add more depth to the position. But Mills has experience all over the secondary. As the cornerback position specifically did not have strong depth, Mills’ presence and performance were key to the unit’s success all year.

How did Mills look in his first season with New England?

The first half of the year wasn’t the best showing for Mills, mostly due to his inconsistent play. But some leniency can be given due to it was his first season with the Patriots. And the Eagles had him play free safety during the 2020 season. Plus, he was lining up opposite Jackson who was having yet another phenomenal season, putting his performance under even more scrutiny.

The 2021 season was a strong test for Mills and in the latter half, he proved to be impressive. He saw a career-high number of passes thrown his way (65) and had a career-best year in yards allowed per target allowing only 6.2 yards. His performance went a bit under the radar but was significant nonetheless.

Stats from the first half of the season compared to the second half:

  • FIRST 8 GAMES: allowed 16 of 26 receptions (62%) |LAST 9 GAMES: allowed 7 of 21 passes (33%)
  • FIRST 8 GAMES: 251 yards | LAST 9 GAMES: 72 yards
  • FIRST 8 GAMES: 4 touchdowns  |LAST 9 GAMES: 2 touchdowns

The lockdown corner the Patriots were hoping to find was awoken during the second half of the season. Mills was back to his prior playing ways and appears to still be there so far this preseason.

How is he looking in training camp so far?

Mills’ performance thus far at training camp is showing him to be the CB1. With so many questions heading into this season in regards to who would become the guy, he’s proving it’s his position to take.

He’s continuing to hold down the outside corner spot, with a rotation of others on the other side.

Although it remains early in training camp, and there have only been two padded practices so far, Mills has shown to be more comfortable and has put on a show against the Patriots’ receivers.

The success he’s had against the team’s top receivers has continued to be a hot topic. He’s won battles against DeVante Parker, who is known for his impressive contested-catch-making abilities and has broken up passes intended for Nelson Agholor.

As their first preseason game approaches next week, it will be interesting to see how much more both Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe will test Mills in practice. They’ve avoided throwing his way during padded practices to this point, but with the real competition just around the corner, they may want to see how they fare against their best cornerback.

What has Patriots’ Mills said about his performance last year?

When asked about the difference between those first eight games of 2021 and the last nine, Mills said he felt more comfortable later in the season; “I definitely got comfortable in the second half of the season. Just locked in and playing fast and trusting the guys next to me.”

He continued, “Being somewhere for so long, and last year being my first year here, totally new defense with different guys I wasn’t used to and now getting another full OTAs with those guys and going into my second camp, it’s night and day,”

Heading into his second year with the team, Mills’ transition to CB1 is crucial, especially with the question marks remaining on the other side. His comfort in his new role will inevitably benefit not just himself but the team entirely, particularly the younger players learning from him.

When asked if he feels ready to take over that number one position, Mills said, “100 percent. That’s (been) the standard here for corners for the past decade. Guys have to be able to line up, play man-to-man, play zone. Whatever it might be, you’ve got to stand up to the challenge.”