OK, so Malcolm Jenkins isn’t a playmaker like Jairus Byrd or imposing in the box like T.J. Ward. He doesn’t have a fancy nickname like “Donte Hitner” and probably isn’t as accomplished as Antoine Bethea.
Jenkins clearly wasn’t the sexy name at safety in free agency, but there’s a reason Eagles coach Chip Kelly prioritized the former Saints safety on his offseason wish list.
Jenkins might not be outstanding in any one aspect of his game, but his steadiness, durability and versatility is what caught the coach’s attention.
“When you look at some guys (on the market), they’re just free safeties and some guys they’re just strong safeties,” Kelly said Friday night to reporters in Atlantic City at the Maxwell Club Awards, where he was honored as pro football coach of the year. “We need some versatility.”
Byrd, who has an NFL-most 22 interceptions by a safety since his rookie year in 2009, isn’t a hard hitter and already has battled foot injuries. Ward and Whitner can bring the pain, but neither is considered an above-average cover guy.
Jenkins, who entered the league as a corner before moving to safety, has played all over the secondary and isn’t unfamiliar to playing in the box, patrolling deep or manning the slot.
For the scheme Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis run, which is designed to create guesswork for the quarterback by moving players around, Jenkins fits the bill.
Even if he’s just OK compared to his free-agent counterparts.
“I think when you know when you’re playing a team and that guy's always going to be the deep safety and that guy's going to be the down safety, when you play against guys like Peyton Manning, you better not always have the same guys doing the same thing,” Kelly said. “So the more versatile your guys are, I think he can cover, he can play man because he's got the corner skills, he can also play free safety because he's got range. But he can also play down in the box.
“So the one thing about Malcolm we thought all along for us that he was the right guy we were looking for because of his versatility, and there were some other guys out there that are tremendous football players. But for what Billy was looking for and we were looking for on the defensive side of the ball, Malcolm just seemed to be the guy that, as we kept going through and analyzing everybody and figuring out who was the right fit for us.”
Kelly caught a bird’s-eye view of Jenkins’ impact on a defense in January, when the Saints held the Eagles under their season average for points in a 26-23 win over the home Eagles in Kelly’s playoff debut at the Linc.
He observed Jenkins, a two-time captain, directing traffic in New Orleans’ secondary and lining up in different spots in different formations.
It’s exactly what he wants in his safeties.
“That’s huge,” Kelly said. “I mean, the guy that sets our front is DeMeco [Ryans] and then you really need a guy on the back end to set the back end, and that’s what part of the whole deal is. That’s where Malcolm’s versatility [helps], and to have a guy back there that is a student of the game, that studies it, that puts us in the right things.
“A lot of things we do are based on formations, so Billy may set a defensive call late but now it depends on what they come out in. So to have a guy back there that’s smart, that can recognize it, that if they came out in this you know they’re in empty, our automatic check is this. You got to have a guy back there that’s the quarterback of the back end and that can really make the decisions that have to be made, to put us in the right coverage, to put us in the right situations to make plays and at times, some of the communication points, to some of the breakdowns, to some of our bigger plays that occurred against us defensively last year.
“So to add a guy like Malcolm was a huge plus for us and that’s why when we really broke everything down he was the guy that we really targeted and were excited to gather.”