Versatile Jenkins is Eagles’ Defensive MVP
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) — Malcolm Jenkins isn't the Eagles' most talented defender but the veteran safety has been Jim Schwartz's most valuable asset as Philadelphia has streaked to the NFL's best record at 8-1.
Many have marveled at the way the Eagles have handled the loss of their CB1 Ronald Darby, who dislocated his ankle in the season opener against Washington, and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, who suffered a torn Achilles, also against the Redskins in Week 7.
Those are two significant losses on paper but the versatility of the 6-foot, 210-pound Jenkins has helped Philadelphia muddle through.
Drafted as a cornerback in New Orleans back in 2009 Jenkins has slowly morphed into the type of hybrid defender who can enable a defensive coordinator to better match up with the multitude of spread offenses around the NFL rather than substituting and announcing one's intention on a particular play.
Jenkins has essentially played five different positions in the back end this season, his typical role as an in-the-box safety, the center fielder or single-high safety as well as both a nickel and outside cornerback and finally a nickel linebacker when the team goes to what is loosely described as a dime defense (six defensive backs on the field).
When Schwartz rolled the latter out against San Francisco as his first third-down defense in Week 8, it wasn't your run of the mill dime, however, because Jenkins was really playing a typical linebacker position next to Nigel Bradham.
There have really been two phases to Schwartz's scheme this season, defined as pre- and post-Hicks.
Before Hicks was lost for the season 39.2 percent of Jenkins snaps came as a safety lined up within eight yards of the line of scrimmage, according to ProFootballFocus.com, essentially his actual position of strong safety. He lined up nearly as much (37.9 percent) as a corner to help with the absence of Darby (normally as the slot corner but also outside on occasion as 17 of Jenkins' 146 snaps at CB were not in the slot) and also interchanged with Rodney McLeod, talking over the role of free safety 22.8 percent of the time.
That's as versatile as it gets for any defensive back in today's NFL but Jenkins has taken it a step further since Hicks was lost. The numbers from Weeks 7 through 9 have Jenkins lining in the box 51.8 percent of the time, at corner 31.8 percent of the time (48 of 59 CB reps in the slot) and the CF on 16.2 percent of the defensive snaps.
Philadelphia's use of the dime defense in which Jenkins has been playing LB has increased from 2.0 percent of the time pre-Hicks, basically in extremely obvious passing situations where Jenkins truly was acting as a defensive back to 17 percent of the time post-Hicks, an actual designed wrinkle in the game plan and one that wouldn't be used by Schwartz if a player like Jenkins wasn't around to pull it off.
"It doesn't surprise me that Malcolm can do that," Tim Hauck, the Eagles' safeties coach, told 973espn.com. "Talent wise, he can cover, he can tackle and he can play in the box. Second of all he works extremely hard at the game so he understands all of those positions. A lot of guys couldn't do it because you throw them at a new position and there would be overload. That doesn't effect Malcolm because he understands the whole scheme of things."
There are still issues but Schwartz, Hauck and secondary coach Corey Undlin have the utmost confidence in Jenkins' football IQ.
"If there is an issue or question he will grind through it," Hauck said of Jenkins.
Hauck, who spent 13 years playing the safety position in the NFL and the last decade-plus coaching defensive backs at the college and pro level, admits what he has in Philadelphia is a luxury
"It's rare," Hauck admitted when asked about finding players with Jenkins' versatility. "You have guys that try to do it [play multiple positions] but they can't be good at all of them. I believe every place we put him he's been good at. There aren't too many guys "I've played with or coached that could even come close to doing all that stuff."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen