In just his second NFL season, with just three career starts on his resume, Jalen Mills finds himself the No. 1 cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles. The injury suffered by Ronald Darby in the opening win over Washington pushed Mills into the role, which he will take on for the first time Sunday in Kansas City.
For some players, the quick ascension would leave them lightheaded or overwhelmed by the responsibility it entails, or at least nervous about how thing will work out. Apparently, however, Mills isn't one of those players.
"Mentally, he's been the No. 1 cornerback since he got here, if you ask him," safety Malcolm Jenkins said, adding a chuckle. "In his mind, he should have been a first- or second-round draft pick. That's how he thinks of himself. He wants to cover the best receiver every week. That's his mindset and it is one of his biggest weapons. His ability to compete and his desire and his willingness to prepare, that's where his confidence comes from. He's a No. 1 corner now, but he'll be a dominant corner in this game as he gets older."
Mills gained the confidence of defensive backs coach Corey Undlin and coordinator Jim Schwartz during his rookie season, earning playing time when Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks were out with injuries. By the end of 2016, Mills had played 65 percent of the defensive snaps and his development was part of the reason the Eagles felt comfortable moving past McKelvin and Nolan Carroll.
Schwartz has repeatedly praised Mills as he made the transition from mostly a slot cornerback to a starter on the outside. It's not the kind of quick improvement every player makes, but, again, Mills isn't every player.
"I think Jalen Mills is one of the most improved players on our team," Schwartz said before the opener. "He has really settled into the outside corner spot. He's that quintessential take-a-big-jump-in-the-second-year guy. At least he's been so far."
Against the Redskins, Mills proved him right. He picked off a pass, batted down two others and set career highs with eight solo tackles and nine total. This week, he'll probably be given primary responsibility for Kansas City speedster Tyreek Hill, who caught seven passes for 133 yards against the Patriots in the Chiefs' opener, including a 75-yard touchdown reception.
"You just have to stay focused, trust the scheme and trust the guys around you," Mills said. "I've been in this scheme for two years now and I'm more comfortable and confident and just want to show my skills. Preparation is 90 percent of it. People don't see you taking care of your body or getting into the playbook or studying film. It's like taking a test. If you study for it, you can be like, 'I'm going to ace this.' But if you don't, you're kind of shaky."
In keeping with his own view of himself, Mills probably should have been drafted much higher coming out of LSU, where he had been a four-year starter. The Eagles took him in the seventh round, with the 233rd pick in the 2016 draft, and he dropped that far because he missed half his senior season with a leg injury, and because of character questions related to an incident between his sophomore and junior years in which he was charged with misdemeanor assault for striking a young woman. The case was later expunged from his record, but the questions lingered.
"If I could go back in time I wouldn't put myself in this predicament," Mills told the Baton Rouge Advocate after the incident. "I grew up with my mother, my grandmother, my aunt. They raised me and showed me how to love and treat a woman. I could have handled the situation a lot better than I did."
Going back in time doesn't work, so Mills has tried to move his life and career forward, even though coming into the league as a seventh-round pick gives a player very few guarantees – whether monetarily or in terms of playing time. As a measure of what Mills' drop in status cost him, he signed a four-year, $2.4 million contract, of which only $77,000 was guaranteed. Artie Burns, a cornerback selected by Pittsburgh late in the first round of the same draft, signed his four-year deal for $9.5 million, of which $7.3 million was guaranteed.
Mills can't change any of that, as much as he would like, but he can play his way into a great position by the time his next contract comes around, and he's on the way to doing so. Just 17 games into his NFL career, he's a No. 1 cornerback, whether by default or otherwise. Now, he has to play like one.
"I love being around guys who are the same type as me," Mills said. "When you see guys competing every day and being hungry, that brings it out of you even more."