Thu, 01 Oct 2020

Defense's big question: Filling the need at safety

Philadelphia Eagles
22 May 2020, 19:12 GMT+10

Jalen Mills is game for the idea. A starter at cornerback the last three seasons, he eschewed hitting the free agent market and instead returned to the Eagles on a one-year contract, listed now as a "defensive back," an important distinction given the role he could very well play in Jim Schwartz's defensive scheme in 2020.

In an offseason of change for the defense, the Eagles revamped the secondary. They added Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay. They saw ironman safety Malcolm Jenkins leave in free agency to return to New Orleans. Filling the need at cornerback was critical. Replacing Jenkins and his production and leadership is the next challenge.

Enter Mills, a seventh-round selection in 2016 who has far outperformed his NFL Draft status. Mills said in late March after signing his contract that the Eagles were the only team of those interested in him who talked about playing safety, a position at which he saw some time in his college days at LSU. Calling it "unfinished business" and saying he "was betting on myself again," Mills was eager for the potential move.

The Eagles have finished four weeks of their virtual offseason program and for a player like Mills, the classroom sessions offer an added height of importance. He knows the defense inside and out, but with an expanded palate of responsibilities ahead, becoming even more ingrained in the nuances of the scheme is necessary. The Eagles are going to have to "hit the ground running," said Head Coach Doug Pederson, when Training Camp begins. All of these mental reps will make a difference.

It's far from a done deal that Mills is going to be the straight-up replacement for Jenkins, anyway. The Eagles liked what they saw from Mills when he played at corner, in the nickel position, and as dime cover man, lining up outside against wide receivers and over tight ends and running backs inside, in the November loss to New England at Lincoln Financial Field. Mills had four solo tackles, six overall, and two passes defensed.

"It was probably one of my best games of the year coming back from the (foot) injury," Mills said. "Kind of showing them that on film and me knowing how Schwartz has used Malcolm the four years that I was there ... he was dynamic for us. He was a player who made plays all over the field. Them coming to me and the idea of being positionless, it was definitely big for me.

"I had fun that game. I was around the ball almost every play."

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The Eagles also signed Will Parks in free agency and then used a fourth-round draft pick on K'Von Wallace, whom they see as another "positionless" player who can move around the defense, as Jenkins did. See, the Eagles aren't just replacing a safety with Jenkins leaving. That's old-school thinking. Jenkins served in a variety of roles as he inched closer to the line of scrimmage. He played the run well. He covered tight ends. He also played in space.

That's a lot of player to replace.

"I'll do whatever for the win," Mills said. "I embrace the responsibilities."

It would have been great had the Eagles been on the field all spring running through the different variations of the defense and seeing how Mills and Parks and Wallace reacted to the different calls and audibles. Can't happen. All should be up to speed by the time the virtual program ends in late June, and Mills certainly has the advantage of playing in the defense for four seasons. When Training Camp opens, Mills should have no problem translating what he knows about the defense into a new position. He's got a new jersey number, 21, and says he is "recreating" himself.

"It's a new position. It's a new field and it's going to be new energy," Mills said.

How the Eagles handle the new look at safety next to Rodney McLeod could very well dictate how the defense progresses in 2020. The defensive line is stacked, particularly at tackle. The Eagles added Jatavis Brown in free agency and Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley to the linebacker corps. Slay brings a high level of excellence at cornerback. And the Eagles anticipate great competition at the other cornerback spot with Avonte Maddox, Sidney Jones, and Rasul Douglas among those vying for the starting job.

But it's that safety position, which demands a man of many talents, that is so tantalizingly changed. Jenkins was a great player and a fantastic leader, but his time in Philadelphia is over. Mills and Parks and Wallace, perhaps in that order, have big shoes to fill. It's really the great unknown with this defense.

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