When free agency opened in March, the Eagles passed right over two arguably superior talents in Pro Bowlers Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward and went for Malcolm Jenkins instead. Since nobody could reasonably argue Jenkins was in fact the better player, the focus has been on the many intangibles he brings to the table at the safety position.
Jenkins was the best fit for the Eagles’ scheme and the culture head coach Chip Kelly is trying to build. He’s a student of the game with tremendous a tremendous football IQ—a vocal leader who quickly established himself as the so-called quarterback of the secondary.
That’s all well and good, but can he actually play?
So far at training camp, the answer has been a resounding yes.
Jenkins has been a true standout in practices this summer, maybe one of the few on defense in a camp that has limited contact. At least, he’s come up with the most big plays. Based on my observations, Jenkins is the unit’s unofficial leader in interceptions through seven practices.
Last Wednesday, Jenkins came up with one of the most spectacular plays of camp thus far. Quick passes to running backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles have been killing the defense all camp, but Jenkins wasn’t having it this time. The sixth-year veteran read Nick Foles beautifully, undercutting Sproles’ route for what would’ve been an easy pick-six in a real game.
It’s especially encouraging to see Jenkins getting his hands on so many footballs, because it wasn’t his specialty in New Orleans. The ’09 first-round pick has just six interceptions and 38 pass breakups in 63 career starts.
That’s probably why the Saints were happy to sign Byrd and his 22 picks to a six-year, $54 million contract, letting Jenkins walk without an offer. The Eagles swooped in with a three-year deal worth $16.5 million for Jenkins.
The money was certainly a deterrent to Byrd landing in Philly. Byrd also has a chronic foot injury that no doubt scared some teams away.
In the Eagles’ case, there was also something to that whole fit thing.
The Eagles like to use their safeties in man coverage against wide receivers and tight ends quite a bit, which just happens to be an area where Jenkins excels. He should. Jenkins played cornerback for Ohio State before making it to the NFL, so it’s not new or unfamiliar territory at all. The Saints used him in man-to-man as well.
That is perhaps the area where Jenkins has shined brightest. We’ve seen Jenkins draped over Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles’ No. 1 receiver, 40 yards down the field. We’ve seen him in second-round pick and human hype machine Jordan Matthews’ pocket on a deep post pattern. These are the two most talented wideouts at camp, and Jenkins passed the test.
Clearly, this is a role the Eagles preferred Jenkins over Byrd for. He adds a little more size/length (6’0” to 5’10”) to the secondary with natural coverage ability. Jenkins is also a year younger, and given some of the concerns over Byrd’s health, getting locked into an expensive long-term deal could potentially be damaging down the road.
Plus, it’s fair to wonder if perhaps Jenkins, in a scheme that’s seemingly tailor-fitted to his skill set, could be on the verge a breakout season of sorts. He has the tools, and at only 26 years of age, there might be some room for growth there.
At the very least, Jenkins’ strong camp has validated the Eagles’ decision to sign him thus far. We knew about the off-field stuff, the intangibles. Seeing lockdown coverage on such a wide range of players, from Maclin to Matthews to running backs and tight ends, proves he’s not just a try-hard or some kind of player-coach.
Jenkins has ability, too—quite a bit more than he has been getting credit for, it would seem. If camp has been any indication, Jenkins is going to be a legit weapon for the Eagles’ defense.