The good news is that Jalen Mills knows the Eagles’ defense. And he knows the safety position.
Now he just has to learn the safety position in the Eagles’ defense.
The effectiveness with which he does so will have major implications for the Eagles in 2020 as the team tries to have the former cornerback replace their veteran leader Malcolm Jenkins in the secondary. Jim Schwartz thinks Mills has all the tools to play safety in his defense but Mills has to prepare to play it in a most unusual offseason.
The toughest part of this transition for Mills comes down to one word: Communication.
That’s why once the virtual spring began this offseason, Mills and returning free safety Rodney McLeod put in extra time on their own. The two had private film sessions to work on chemistry and communication. At Mills’ request, they started with Week 1 and went through the Eagles’ opponents for the 2020 season.
I really just wanted to hear the way that he communicated,” Mills said. “Because, of course, he’s been on the back end and I was playing on the outside. Now, me hearing how he’s communicating. I told him I didn’t want to switch anything that he did because he’s been successful at that spot. Just more of learning from him and the different type of verbiage that he uses.
“So I don’t get out there and say something and it may throw him off or slow him down. I just wanted to make sure that he’s still playing fast. At the end of the day, I know the defense, I just want to get the exact verbiage that he may have been using on the back end.
For the last four years, McLeod has played next to Jenkins and the two developed a rapport. While McLeod has played with Mills, it has been in a completely different capacity. They need to be way more in sync this year to make things pop.
Mills explained that when he played outside corner, if he couldn’t hear a call from the MIKE linebacker, he’d look to the sideline for a hand signal and then be ready for the snap. But as a safety, Mills will have more responsibility. Once he gets a call, it’s part of his new job to relay that information. He’ll have to make sure everybody — corners, linebackers, defensive linemen — knows the call.
And to do that, it’s all about communication, knowing how to communicate with the rest of the defense. That’s where those extra sessions with McLeod came into play.
Mills also needs to get rid of some of the rust when it comes to just thinking like a safety again. It’s been a while since he played the position at LSU.
“Making sure he sees the game the right way as he’s now switching positions and the hardest part for him is not defense, right?” McLeod said. “Like he knows all the schematics but it’s now lining up in a different spot. It’s now him understanding, ‘Where do I need to have my eyes here?’ ‘How are you seeing things?’
“I believe the chemistry, man, is going to be a lot easier than people think. And so far, so good. It seems like within the couple of days that we’ve been together as a unit, he’s really taken a step further. I’m very confident that we will be good once Week 1 hits and he’ll be ready to rock and make a lot of plays at his new position.”
While the Eagles are technically already in training camp, their first practice won’t happen until Aug. 12. After that, their first padded practice won’t be until Aug. 17.
So from the time the Eagles begin padded practices they’ll have less than a month to prepare for their season opener in Washington on Sept. 13. That means less than a month of practices for Mills to make his position switch.
That’s where that extra time might really pay off.
If Mills doesn’t work at safety, the Eagles also have free agent Will Parks and rookie K’Von Wallace on the team. But it’s pretty clear that Mills is the guy to get the first crack at the job.
“Though he is making a position switch,” McLeod said. “I think he will thrive in his position.”
We’ll find out soon enough.
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