The Patriots came into training camp with new faces all around their cornerback room.
After J.C. Jackson's free agency departure, there are question marks about how the Patriots will fill the Pro Bowler's big shoes, and his exit led head coach Bill Belichick to draft rookies Marcus and Jack Jones in the middle rounds.
Although the first-year players are acclimating well, the standout in initial training camp practices is second-year Patriot Jalen Mills. Mills is rising to the challenge of potentially lining up against the opponent's top pass-catcher and is consistently providing tight coverage on the outside.
Mills has battled with top Pats receivers such as DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne and hasn't been targeted much with the pads on this week, which is a good sign. In the non-padded session, Mils looked smooth breaking up a slant intended for Agholor and challenging a contested-catch artist in Parker at the catch point in red zone drills.
As the Pats slowly approach the preseason opener next Thursday, Mills has the right mindset regarding facing the top wideouts on New England's schedule.
"That's the expectation here. When you look at the guys that have played here over the last decade, whether it's man or zone, they're doing it at a high level," Mills told Patriots.com.
Entering his second season with the Patriots, the 2021 free-agent addition also feels more at home in Bill Belichick's defense.
"I feel good. Being more comfortable in the scheme, whether it's man or zone. Knowing where guys are going to be depending on the situation on first, second, or third down. Going out there and playing fast."
"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," Mills said of his improved comfort level in the Pats system.
When Belichick targeted Mills in free agency, most thought the former Eagles defensive back would play multiple positions in the defense.
However, an ongoing contract and injury situation with former cornerback Stephon Gilmore forced the Patriots to play Mills on the outside, where he logged 75 percent of his snaps in 2021. After having some struggles at wide corner in Philadelphia, Mills held his own by allowing just a 58.3 completion rate and 440 yards into his coverage on 60 targets – respectable production.
Another positive that Mills is seeing from the Patriots defense is improved team speed, especially at the linebacker level, which has been notable from this perspective as well.
With veteran Raekwon McMillan returning from injury and newcomer Mack Wilson in the mix, the Patriots have better athletes at the second level that are faster to the football.
"100 percent. Definitely at linebacker. We have Mack [Wilson], and we have Kwon [McMillan]. It definitely helps to have those guys," Mills told reporters following Thursday's practice.
Along with the defense's play, Mills spoke about his initial impressions of rookie wide receiver Tyquan Thornton and another newcomer in Parker. On top of their standout traits of speed (Thornton) and size (Parker), Mills has been impressed with their ability to run the entire route tree.
"The pads don't slow him down. Of course, we know he's fast. But the biggest thing for me is seeing him not running go routes every single play. We see him run short and intermediate routes as well. That's what you want to see, especially with fast guys," Mills said of the Pats rookie.
With Mills manning one outside corner spot, the Patriots have rotated veterans and rookies on the other side. Mainly, Terrance Mitchell has taken the most reps and held up nicely. But as camp rolls on, Malcolm Butler is getting more opportunities as his reunion tour in New England continues. Lastly, rookie Jack Jones continues to get a full workload with the second unit and has made some plays, including a forced incompletion against Agholor on Thursday.
Like every team nowadays, the Patriots will face their fair share of highly-touted wideouts, starting immediately in the regular-season opener against Miami and Tyreek Hill.
Although it remains to be seen if the Pats new-look cornerback group will be up for the challenge, Mills is starting the season off on the right foot in training camp.