The first off-season of the Chip Kelly era saw a very clearly laid out plan for building the Eagles: fill the immediate holes with solid pieces to supplement a core being built out of draft picks. This off-season is no different. On the first day of free agency the Eagles addressed their hole at safety by signing Malcolm Jenkins. It is obvious but fair to say that as a converted cornerback, his versatility was very appealing to the Eagles. But Jenkins brings more to the table than just versatility.
One of Jenkins’ strengths, as you can imagine, is his skill in coverage. His coverage ability is versatile, he can cover wide receivers and tight ends. The Saints defense was 7th in DVOA vs TEs, the Eagles 24th. Jenkins did not line up against TEs a whole lot, but he did solid job when tasked with them.
Here Jenkins will be lined up in the slot, over Brandon LaFell, Jabari Greer is lined up over Greg Olsen (with a white line going through his head in the picture below). Jenkins and Greer and will run an inside/out combination technique, or "Sambo", with Greer taking the first release to the inside, which is LaFell on an underneath crossing route; and Jenkins taking Olsen, who goes down the seam. Jenkins drops to 8 yards off the line of scrimmage, which coincidentally is the first down marker (or is it the other way around?), which is where Olsen will break his route, if he does. Olsen does not break his route though, so Jenkins engages him, disrupting the timing, and then sticks with him as he turns and runs. Cam Newton has no place to go and winds up face first on the turf, thanks in part to Jenkins' coverage.
Even though Tony Gonzalez is as old and slow as the Galapagos tortoises at the Philadelphia Zoo, he is still a sharp route runner and had a great rapport with Matt Ryan. On this play Jenkins will stick with him as Roddy White runs a crossing route, then jump the route to break up the pass, nearly intercepting it.
The addition of Jenkins should be a very welcome boost to the defense against TEs and help free up Connor Barwin here and there from those duties to roam elsewhere. Jenkins won’t just be matched up against tight ends though, as we saw Billy Davis keep his defense in base personnel when the opposition had three WRs on the field, with disastrous results when Patrick Chung was manning the slot. Jenkins can handle wide receivers in the slot.
Larry Fitzgerald is going to run a 15 yard post route. Jenkins will redirect him to the outside then match him down the seam. Because he is Larry Fitzgerald, Carson Palmer thinks he can still catch the pass. It is hard to fault Palmer for thinking this, but on this play he is wrong. Jenkins has great coverage and reaches in to bat the pass away.
Here, Roddy White will run a 12 yard comeback. Jenkins will, you guessed it, redirect him and disrupt the route. Matt Ryan will be unable to find anyone open and wind up under a large pile of large men.
This too could free up Barwin for other usage. As the season progressed, Davis used Barwin to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage and then drop into zone coverage, bracketing the WR with the CB behind him. While this produced respectable results and was used sparingly, it was a predictable defense as Barwin was clearly not going to play man against WRs, the defense was always in zone. With Jenkins on the field, Davis could opt to instead use Jenkins there, putting Barwin back inside the box where he excels and giving Davis the ability to truly mix up coverages, and for those coverages to be more effective.
Big People Beat Up Little People
It is an odd decision that Davis chooses to at times not put Brandon Boykin on the field in nickel situations. The signing of Jenkins means he will continue to do this, as he is a significant upgrade over last year's options at safety. Nickel is role Jenkins played regularly in New Orleans, he would move over to the slot and sometimes out wide and Rob Ryan would bring in either Rafael Bush or for some reason Roman Harper as the second safety. If Davis decides to do this even more than he did last year, it would be easy to think he will be wasting the talents of Boykin. And he very well might, Boykin is one of the best slot corners in the league, Jenkins is not. But as in all things, context is key. Boykin is 5’9", Jenkins is 6’1". Against larger WRs the Eagles are scheduled to face such as Dez Bryant, Andre Johnson, Anquan Boldin, Justin Blackmon and Larry Fitzgerald, Davis may chose to use Jenkins more in the slot more often against such receivers and negate the height advantage those players would have over Boykin. Whether or not that is the best use of his players is a topic for discussion another day, but there is at least sound reasoning behind it: there are not many 6'1" defensive backs that can play nickel. And of course Jenkins also provides sound cover should Boykin get injured, something the Eagles did not have last year.
One thing that stood out about Jenkins is his quick decision making. While it occasionally led to him being vulnerable to play action, most of the time it led to good plays that saved yards. One of Jenkins' two interceptions last year is a great example. (The other was a right time, right place catch on a tipped pass.) The Bucs will send two WRs deep and the RB shallow. With Vincent Jackson open, Jenkins breaks on him before Josh Freeman has even set his feet to throw the ball. Jenkins jumps the route perfectly for the interception.
Here is another great piece of anticipation, against the Bills. CB Jabari Greer will mistakenly play the flat as if this is Cover 2, instead he should be playing the deep third because the defense is in Cover 3. Jenkins, knowing the other receivers are accounted for by his teammates, immediately breaks to pick up TJ Graham, who has become wide open due to Greer's mistake. Notice Thad Lewis is not facing that side of the field yet, Jenkins has beaten him in his progression. Lewis turns and throws to Graham for a 14 yard gain, but Jenkins is in position to tackle him as soon as he turns. There was nothing Jenkins could do about giving up the catch, but because of his quick decision making he has limited the yards after the catch to 0.
Another reason why Jenkins fits the Eagles is that he is also a special teams contributor. Chip Kelly of course values special teams play, with a whopping 33 players playing over 10% of the Eagles special teams snaps, including starters such as Bradley Fletcher, Connor Barwin and Trent Cole. Jenkins played on 25% of Saints snaps in 2013 and 26% in 2012, and he missed 5 games during those two years. Jenkins ST playing time might go down considering the depth and rotation that the Eagles have on special teams, but that does not matter. What does is that Jenkins is a willing and able special teams player in addition to being a starter, another quality that is attractive to the Eagles.
In Chip We Trust
Chip Kelly’s "if you can’t stop them, have them join you" philosophy from the draft has also applied to established player acquisitions. Darren Sproles is the kind of player that Kelly would be interested in even if he had never played against him, but the game planning against Sproles sealed the deal, and now Sproles is an Eagle. Jenkins is no different. Chip game-planned against and then faced Malcolm Jenkins, and the Saints defense played pretty well. And now, not only is he is an Eagle, he was their first signing of free agency.
Malcolm Jenkins does have his weaknesses, but then so does everyone. Whereas Jenkins' strengths fill needs or compliment what the Eagles already do, his weaknesses can either be corrected by coaching or mitigated through scheme.
Jenkins biggest weakness is his tackling. Too often he drops his head and goes shoulder hit rather than staying square and wrapping up.
On this play Rams TE Corey Harkey has caught a pass in the flat and is turning up field. Jenkins is on course to intercept him, and does. In position to force or knock him out of bounds, Jenkins instead drops his shoulder to take out Harkey’s legs. Harkey hops over him and scores.
Tackling Marshawn Lynch is no easy task, but one can make it easier on himself by using proper technique. Jenkins does not. Lynch gives him a juke, Jenkins again drops his shoulder and tries to take out the legs. Lynch easily goes around him and if not for Curtis Lofton tackling Lynch from behind, this would have been a huge gain if not a touchdown.
However, Jenkins’ tackling can be improved. Jenkins admits he needs to improve this area, and the coaching staff has shown they can improve their players tackling and technique, as we most notably saw with Nate Allen. Such improvement should not be taken for granted though, as Earl Wolff is guilty of this as well and Patrick Chung's poor tackling never improved.
Lack of Turnovers
Jenkins entered the league in 2009 as a cornerback and then moved to safety in 2010. Since that switch, 30 other safeties have started 40+ games and had more interceptions than his five. On the other hand, only 16 have forced more fumbles than his four. But again, context is key. Jenkins has not been an every down safety, his coaches have used him as a nickelback in man coverage, where he gets fewer chances to pick off passes than at safety or in zone. It is tough to intercept a pass when it is not thrown your way because you are doing a good job covering a slot receiver.
This can be improved through scheme. Jenkins feels he was best used in 2010, sliding around the field in a variety of roles, when he recorded 2 INTs and forced a fumble. This year he was also moved around the field as a chess piece, and he recorded 2 INTs and 2 FFs. Not great numbers, but respectable totals. In other words, when coaches best utilize Jenkins’ skills, he gives them his best production. Funny how that works. Jenkins will play more zone this year, so he should have more opportunities to pick off passes.
Lack of Cover 3
Expanding on that, and is not a knock on Jenkins as a player, but since the Saints rarely played Cover 3 last year picturing him in the Eagles Cover 3 heavy scheme requires a good deal of projection. Jenkins did play a lot as the free safety in Cover 1, but that is not entirely the same as free safety in Cover 3. In Cover 3, Jenkins will have a narrower part of the field to be responsible for compared to Cover 1 or Cover 2 (both of which the Eagles run from time to time). With more plays where he has a smaller zone of responsibility, Jenkins will get more opportunities to intercept the ball. Only time will tell if he is able to capitalize on it.
In 2009 in Arizona, Billy Davis’ defense performed solidly, then declined in 2010. One of the reasons for that was the team lost five starters and replaced them with downgrades. Davis had to make do with what he had, and it was not enough. Fast forward four years and Davis is in the opposite situation: he had to make do with what he had in 2013, and in 2014 the team is adding talent that better fits what he wants to do. What exactly he will do with Jenkins is unclear. Last year working with the inherited Nate Allen, the terrible Patrick Chung and the rookie Earl Wolff, he put all of them both high and low on the field, in all situations. Now that he will have more of "his" players on the roster, he may make them more static. But what about the other safety spot? With Jenkins able to play multiple and distinct roles, he should be paired with a safety also capable of playing in the box when Jenkins is at free safety, and also free safety for when Jenkins is put in the slot. That is much, much easier said than done though, such players do not grow on trees. Can Earl Wolff be that player? Might there be one available in the draft?
Jenkins’ strengths fits a lot of what the Eagles want and need: good instincts, reliable decision making, very good and versatile coverage ability, willing special teams play and on and off the field leadership (he was one of defensive captains in 2012 and 2013). And though there are no guarantees, his major weaknesses are correctable either through coaching (tackling) or scheme (lack of turnovers). It is easy to see why they signed him.