Philadelphia Eagles: Replacing Malcolm Jenkins with Jalen Mills is crazy

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Re-signing Jalen Mills? Cool. Moving him to safety? Fantastic. Asking him to replace Malcolm Jenkins as the Philadelphia Eagles’ on-field leader and switchblade defender? That’s a tough ask for any player.

The Philadelphia Eagles made the right call re-signing Jalen Mills.

After passing – intentionally or not – on the initial wave of free-agent cornerbacks, bringing back a tough as nails defensive back with 52 games of experience in Jim Schwartz‘s scheme on a one-year, $5 million deal makes a ton of sense. Heck, the Eagles have more (dead) money tied up in Nigel Bradham than they do in Mills, and he’s not even on the team anymore.

When news started to develop, and it became clear Mills’ return was also going to correspond with a move to safety, his primary position at LSU, it made even more sense. Mills is slow, 4.61 slow, and has consistently struggled to compete on the outside with the league’s premier vertical receiving threats. A move inside, either at safety or in the slot, mitigates that deficiency, and should allow Mills to play free-er as a defensive playmaker.

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But here’s the thing, Mills isn’t a free safety. He lacks the speed to go sideline-to-sideline effectively, and his physicality would be wasted playing that far off the ball. If Mills is going to play strong safety close to the line of scrimmage, there has to be a second shoe about to drop.

*spoiler alert* there was, and it hit hard.

After six seasons of action, Malcolm Jenkins will not be back with the Eagles in 2020. By all accounts, Howie Roseman did attempt to work out a new deal with the Iron Eagle, but unfortunately, the two parties couldn’t come to a reworked deal. Jenkins will now hit the open market for the first time since 2014, where the 32-year-old will be in high demand.

My goodness, I hate this move.

It’s not hyperbole to call Jenkins the lifeblood of the Eagles over the past six seasons, and a huge reason why they won the Super Bowl in 2018. Since landing in Philly, a consolation prize after missing out on both Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward, Jenkins has never missed a game and played 6,388 of a possible 6,470 defensive snaps. Jenkins also played all over the defense as a versatile do-it-all defender, playing nickel corner on first down, strong safety on second down, and linebacker on third down.

So needless to say, the Eagles can’t replace Jenkins’ production with any old strong safety and expect to replicate his productivity straight up. Teams typically don’t get better when they release one of their top-5 players, especially one with more responsibilities throughout the game than anyone not named Carson Wentz.

Fortunately, Mills may be one of the few free agents out there who can step into that role, but my goodness, talk about the pressure.

Despite having exclusively played cornerback for the last four years, Mills played every position across LSU’s secondary as a four-year starter and remained a productive disruptor of the football. While he isn’t big enough to be an old school box safety like Kam Chancellor or Landon Collins, it’s not hard to imagine Mills filling the Jenkins role as a roamable playmaker in Schwartz’s defense. Frankly, a move to this very specific breed of safety may be the best move for Mills’ career moving forward, especially if Schwartz believes he’s worthy of such a vital, expansive role.

If Mills can adapt to his new position seamlessly and take a step forward as a player – two massive asks regardless of his experience – maybe he can make fans forget about Jenkins in 2020, but boy oh boy that’s a massive ask for any player, especially one with some notable athletic deficiencies.

And yet, that’s clearly the path Roseman has set this team down going into 2020, as the Eagles finished off the second day of free agency with their third straight move at safety – retaining Rodney McLeod on a two-year deal worth $12 million.

*sidenote* can the Eagles address more than one position group a day? My goodness, Day 1 was all about the defensive tackles, while Day 2 has been safety central. Hopefully, Day 3 is all about the cornerbacks, if you know what I mean.

Maybe Mills and McLeod can replace Jenkins at safety all the while keeping the locker room intact without their insanely popular leader, but how will the Eagles replace number 27’s production as a subpackage linebacker? In 2018 and 2019, the Eagles deployed three safeties on roughly a quarter of their defensive snaps. This big nickel package worked out because Jenkins could shift inside and play a quasi-linebacker role in the middle of the defense. Mills can do a lot of things, but he’s just too small to take on bigger tight ends, or more athletic running backs in space.

Nathan Gerry has developed into one of the better coverage linebackers in the league since transitioning from a college safety in 2017, but he’s yet to prove he’s even an every-down linebacker in the NFL, let alone a player capable of being a plus-defender in man coverage.

Frankly, I don’t think we collectively appreciated just how many aspects of the game Jenkins impacted on any given Sunday. His presence is going to be sorely missed.

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Look, for all of our sake, I genuinely hope Jalen Mills comes into his own as Philly’s answer to Tyrann Mathieu – the player he ironically replaced in LSU’s starting lineup back in 2012. As a long-time member of the finger-wagging society, it would not only help to bolster defense in 2020 but set the team up for long-term success at a vital position. But if Mills falters and Malcolm Jenkins continues his streak of dominant play elsewhere, the Philadelphia Eagles will look beyond foolish and will suffer massively as a result.