Safety is perhaps the deepest position on a loaded defense for the New England Patriots. The strength in depth is good news for incumbents like Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger, but not for converted cornerback Jalen Mills.
Trading the 2018 Super Bowl winner with the Philadelphia Eagles is something the Pats should consider, according to Bleacher Report’s Alex Ballentine. He believe Mills is a good fit for the Green Bay Packers because there’s no room for the veteran in New England.
Specifically, Ballentine identified the sheer numbers blocking Mills’ path to making a successful position switch: “The Patriots moved the former corner to the safety room, but Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers all appear to be ahead of him. Then there’s rookie Marte Mapu. He’s played at linebacker, but he’s also taken snaps in safety alignments.”
This isn’t the first time Mills has been mooted as a potential trade candidate this offseason. Yet, while he faces an uphill battle to play safety, the 29-year-old’s versatility could still have value in the hybrid defenses preferred by head coach Bill Belichick.
Veteran Picked the Wrong Time to Switch Positions
Transitioning to safety might prolong Mills’ career on another team, but not with the Patriots. Not when Phillips and Dugger are entrenched in starting roles, while Peppers is also useful because he can play both safety spots.
Speaking of versatility, Dugger and Phillips offer plenty of flexibility for Belichick’s playbook. It’s not uncommon for the Pats to put three safeties on the field at once, with either Phillips or Dugger operating at the linebacker level.
In fact, Dugger has showcased the ability to also play cornerback and in the slot. Edge-rusher Matthew Judon named Dugger one of the Patriots’ many “unicorns” on defense, per Taylor Kyles of Patriots on CLNS, who highlighted the many roles No. 23 performs.
Mills has done similar things during his seven-year career, but the 6-foot, 191-pounder is not a thumper in the box the way Dugger and Phillips can be against the run. It doesn’t help Mills that Marte Mapu can now be counted among the Pats’ box safeties and nickel linebackers.
Belichick used a third-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft to take former Sacramento State star Mapu off the board. There’s a strong chance Mapu will see ample playing time as a rookie, especially since he’s operated at “linebacker, safety and nickel corner, often staying on the field with the first-, second- and third-team defenses” at training camp, per Chad Graff of The Athletic.
With so many players vying for a key hybrid role, Mills may be best served trying to replace a Patriots great a little further back.
Trade Candidate Can Replace Franchise Legend
Devin McCourty’s decision to retire took away the single-high safety crucial to the Patriots’ Cover 1 schemes. Having McCourty play deep allowed outside corners, slot defensive backs and box safeties to jam receivers in man coverage underneath.
None of Peppers, Dugger nor Phillips have the range to do what McCourty did. Mills could step into that role, though, at least based on what he did for the Eagles at free safety in 2020, according to Louie Benjamin of Pro Football Focus.
He would need to beat Peppers to the job, but letting Mills showcase his worth as the last line of the Patriots’ defense could help maintain some core principles of Belichick’s scheme. That makes it worth keeping an experienced, flexible veteran who is unlikely to fetch much in trade when he’s only on a one-year contract.