By Mark Eckel, Player Engagement Insider
Jalen Mills, as a seventh-round draft pick out of LSU in 2016, needed to do something to get the attention of his Philadelphia Eagles teammates and coaches before the start of the team’s workouts.
So, the rookie cornerback dyed his hair bright green and picked up the nickname, “The Green Goblin’’ from his teammates.
“It definitely got me noticed,’’ Mills said with a laugh. “But playing good at the same time helped too.’’
As it turned out Mills didn’t need the hair dye to impress the Eagles coaches, or his teammates. He played from the start of the season, mostly in the nickel alignment in coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defense. And Schwartz’s nickel package is basically his base. Mills was on the field for more than 50 percent of the defense’s plays in 12 of the team’s 16 games, and over 65 percent of the defensive plays for the season.
“It’s every day, day in and day out, you have to compete,’’ Mills said. “You can’t just have one good day and think you have a place. You have to do it every day in practice and then at the end of the week the coaches decide who’s going to play.’’
This offseason the Eagles added a veteran cornerback in Patrick Robinson through free agency and drafted Rasul Douglas out of West Virginia in the third round. (They also drafted Sidney Jones, out of Washington, in the second round but he could miss most, if not all, of the season with a torn Achilles.) The team also let both of last year’s starters, Nolan Carroll (free agent to Dallas) and Leodis McKelvin (released) leave.
Mills was asked to cover some of the game’s top wide receivers as a rookie, including division rivals the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham, and the Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant. He also got to see the Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones.
“The guys I had to go up against,’’ Mills said. “I think that’s going to help a lot going into year two.’’
A year later, Mills is ready to take another step. And the Eagles, who have him penciled in as a starter and their likely No. 1 cornerback, are ready for him to take it as well.
“It’s a totally different feeling,’’ Mills said of his second year compared to his first. “My style of play has changed as well. The way I think on the field, the way I communicate with the other guys. Just getting the in-game experience alone, makes it different.
“I’m not being as hesitant as I was. I trust my technique. I trust my eyes. If I see something now, I know how to react to it, because I probably saw it before. So overall, I’m just a smarter cornerback.’’
Still, the 23-year-old Texas native isn’t taking anything for granted. The hard work he put in as a rookie to earn playing time isn’t going to help him in his second season if he doesn’t continue to work just as hard this summer.
“Right now, going through the OTAs and all of that, nothing is for certain,’’ Mills said. “Regardless of what they say, there’s really no depth chart. I’m trying to stay grounded, stay humble as possible, and keep grinding, working hard. I have to get through the OTAs and then camp and just elevate my game.
“I try to work on something different in my game every day. One day it might be my footwork, the next day my eyes, the next day my hands, zone, man, just working on all facets of my game. Then when it comes time for the coaching staff to choose who is starting or whatever, they’ll have nothing but good things to say.’’