A few weeks ago, days before his season debut, Jalen Mills stood by his locker at the NovaCare Complex and his voice barely rose above a whisper. The boisterous corner was uncharacteristically quiet.
Mills was conserving energy. He knew he needed it because he knows his teammates feed off it.
If there’s one word to describe Mills, it’s swagger. And that swagger is the hallmark of the Eagles’ green-haired, finger-wagging, trash-talking, dance-crazy, fashion-forward, always-confident cornerback.
It always has been.
“My mom always taught me to express yourself,” Mills said. “Whether it’s by dancing, hyping guys up, whatever it may be. Just always express yourself.”
Although they sometimes get used interchangeably, confidence and swagger are much different. Plenty of confident people are quiet; Mills isn’t one of them. While confidence is internal, swagger is its physical manifestation. True swagger can’t come without confidence.
Mills has both in heaps.
Confidence is a necessity for an NFL cornerback because if you’re an NFL cornerback, you’re going to get beat. And after you get beat, you’re gonna have to stand back on that field, look across at Julio Jones or Amari Cooper or Odell Beckham Jr. and fully expect to shut them down.
Since Mills returned to the lineup a month ago, he has helped stabilized a secondary that desperately needed it. He’s done it with his play, but don’t discount the energy and, yes, the swagger that he brings to the Eagles’ defense.
When you ask Mills for the origin of his confidence, you get an interesting answer.
“Adversity,” he said. “I’ve been faced with adversity my whole life. I’ve lost a lot and I always had to get back up. It’s just natural.”
That has served Mills well in his football career. The ability to bounce back from adversity is an important trait for an NFL cornerback.
Even in his early days as a football player Mills was a frequent dancer, but his signature finger wag didn’t until come much later. He thinks he started using the finger wag his senior year at LSU a few years after seeing Morris Claiborne do it.
Claiborne was the No. 6 pick in 2012, but in 2011 had a breakout season and won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. Mills was a senior in high school in 2011, ready to follow in Claiborne’s footsteps at LSU.
“He used to always do it,” Mills said. “You see older guys going to your school and you look up to them. It kind of translated over.”
Early in his NFL career, Mills said he wasn’t really able to have the swagger he does now. It wasn’t because he lacked confidence, but because as a rookie, he was just concerned about getting everything right and learning the defense. A few years later, he’s not worried about making mistakes anymore; he’s free.
But even before he became the Green Goblin, his teammates and coaches saw glimpses of his personality and confidence when Mills was a rookie seventh-round pick in 2016.
“I love the hell out of that kid. I really do,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said in December of 2016, Mills’ rookie year. “He’s a competitor. People talk about speed, people talk about ability to play the ball. To me, the number one criteria for playing corner is you have to be a competitor, and he is.”
It rubs off
Mills was a rotational player as a rookie, but became a starter during the 2017 Super Bowl season and has been a starter, when healthy, ever since.
And his Green Goblin persona has grown.
“I didn’t notice that just when I got here,” fellow cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc said. “I noticed that from being on opposing teams, watching film. Like, ‘damn, that 31, he got that dawg in him. He’s gonna bark, but then he gonna bite. He’s not all bark. His play back it up.’ You know what I’m saying?
“It’s football. You’re going to get beat sometimes, but you’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some. J don’t shy away from that. He likes to compete.”
Rasul Douglas says every player in the Eagles’ defensive back room has a role. It’s clear that Mills’ job is to bring energy before and during games. It’s a role he takes seriously. And Mills feeds off energy from his teammates too.
But even his non-defensive back teammates say Mills provides juice for the whole defense. In recent weeks, it’s shown.
“Even outside of football, I’m a big energy guy,” Mills said. “I can feel somebody’s energy whether they’re up or down. I don’t even have to know them. So I know for sure that it rubs off on guys. I just try to, when I’m out there having fun, whether I’m dancing or doing whatever, I try to get guys into it. You may have guys that are so locked in, but the end of the day, this is a game we’ve been playing since we were 7, 8, 9 years old, so have fun too.”
No one seems to have more fun than Mills.
There have been times during his three years in Philly where he’s been maligned by Eagles fans, but Mills’ confidence never wavered. He always believed in himself and based on the last few weeks, the Green Goblin has gained plenty of believers too.
He’s played so well over these last few weeks, that maybe it’s time to start thinking about a possible extension for Mills, who is in a contract season.
It’s been over three years since Mills showed up with green hair in July of 2016. He never thought it would last this long.
“No,” Mills said with a smile. “But I think I’m gonna be stuck with it the rest of my career.”
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