Following his reported release less than one week ago, the Patriots are re-signing veteran defensive back Jalen Mills.
After signing the former Eagles draft pick to a four-year, $24 million contract in free agency in 2021, the Patriots were planning on releasing Mills in a cap-saving maneuver but are retaining the versatile defensive back on a reworked one-year deal, according to multiple reports. Mills's release was never official in the eyes of the salary cap, so the revised contract worth up to $6.1 million takes the place of his original deal, making him an unrestricted free agent in 2024.
With the Patriots outside cornerback depth depleted, Mills was a full-time corner for New England over the last two seasons, where he had up-and-down production. Last season, Mills allowed a 79.2 passer rating into his coverage with a 60% completion rate while logging 80.1% of his snaps at outside corner. The 28-year-old missed the last six games of the 2022 season due to a nagging groin injury. Although Mills was inconsistent at corner, he returns as the only defensive back who can play the position listed over six feet on the roster.
According to reports, Mills could also transition to safety this upcoming season, where he can help fill the void left behind by franchise legend Devin McCourty's retirement. In Philly, Mills was a jack of all trades, logging snaps in the box (329), free safety (236), and both cornerback spots. When he signed with the Pats as a free agent, most expected head coach Bill Belichick to utilize that versatility by moving Mills around the secondary to get the most out of his skill set.
As a chess piece in the Eagles defense, Mills had arguably his best season posting a career-high 68.9 grade from Pro Football Focus. The Pats kicked the tires on other free-agent safeties this offseason, hosting former Rams safety Taylor Rapp on a visit. But now are reportedly sticking with Mills, who joins a group of DBs that can mix and match in the backend.
The Patriots will have a tough time finding a pure center fielder with the on-field intelligence and experience to fill McCourty's shoes with one player. Instead, Mills joins standout safety Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jabrill Peppers, and versatile nickel corners Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant to potentially replace McCourty by committee. Free safety could still be a need in the draft. Still, this move lessens the necessity to find an instant-McCourty successor, which has been a theme all over the roster throughout the offseason – find viable veteran options so you are not forced into a particular position at the top of the draft out of desperation.
With Mills's return, the feeling here is that he could serve as another option to cover top receiving tight ends since he has the size and cover skills, which would free up Dugger to play more of a rover role where he can ball hawk in the secondary rather than play man coverage. Mills also has some experience playing both post-safety and split-safety assignments, but it remains to be seen how trustworthy he'll be as a deep zone defender in this system.
The Patriots continue to retain their depth pieces on defense, with Mills joining six other in-house free agents this offseason who re-upped to return to Foxboro.