Malcolm Jenkins has never been back to the Superdome in New Orleans. The Eagles safety played the first five seasons of his NFL career for the Saints, winning a Super Bowl and becoming a captain. But when Jenkins' contract expired after the 2013 season, the Saints didn't make an offer to keep him.
They sought an upgrade, and Jenkins wrestled with self-doubt. He was 26 years old, and he didn't know what would happen with his career.
The Eagles offered Jenkins a three-year, $16.5 million contract; five other safeties on the market that year earned bigger deals. He liked the idea of returning close to his childhood home of Piscataway, N.J., but he didn't want the chance to be his last in the NFL.
"At that point, I was kind of battling my own mind about how I left New Orleans, having a little bit of doubt," Jenkins said this past week. "Obviously, when I got here, it wasn't like it was the sexiest signing ever. There was talk about wanting other guys. For me, at first, it was a lot of a big chip on my shoulder when I got here. … I thought of it as an opportunity to redefine or reestablish myself in the league, so I was kind of out to prove to myself what type of player I can be."
Jenkins knew that he didn't want bounce around the NFL. His goal was always to play 10 seasons, but he wouldn't subject his family to the life of a vagabond. Jenkins came to a conclusion at that point.
"It's either going to work in Philadelphia, or [my career is] probably going to be done," Jenkins said. "I'm either going to have a long career [with the Eagles] or it's going to be done after these three years."
Jenkins offered this reflection 11 weeks into his 10th NFL season, and his fifth with the Eagles. The direction he took at that crossroads has become clear. He helped bring Philadelphia its first Super Bowl victory, and he is the unquestioned leader of the Eagles. His postgame remarks set the tone for the team and his voice resonates beyond the locker room to the team's decision-makers.
Jenkins used to tap the wall in a corridor in the Eagles facility where pictures commemorate all the franchise's Pro Bowlers. Jenkins is now on that wall. He's on his second contract with the team, has hopes of finishing his career with the Eagles, and will go down as one of the best free-agent signees in franchise history and one of the most important Eagles of the last decade.
Jenkins has played 76 games in an Eagles uniform – including those three postseason games last season. But his first game back in New Orleans is on Sunday, and it's significant to him.
When the schedule came out, Jenkins admitted he circled this game. And it's not just for the revenge factor, although that still fuels him.
Jenkins has a lot of nostalgia about New Orleans. He started his career in the city. He got married there, had his first daughter there, started a business there, opened his foundation there. He still has friends and connections in the area.
He appreciates the New Orleans fans and looks forward to playing in front of the Superdome crowd again. And he'll see a franchise that has missed him ever since it let him go. This is not just another game for Jenkins.
"I think everything works out the way it's supposed to," he said. "I think it would be arrogant for me to say that I could have done all the same things in New Orleans. I think I needed to switch. I think everything I learned in New Orleans prepared me for the success I'm having in Philly – from off the field in the community, to on the field, to a leadership standpoint, to learning the game schematically.
All of those things. I was able to cut my teeth in New Orleans. And when I got here, I was well prepared to step into the role that was waiting for me."
Jenkins will arrive at the Superdome a more productive player now than when he was in New Orleans, and he points to the different ways he has been used with the Eagles as a reason.
Jenkins played for three defensive coordinators in New Orleans, shuffling between roles based on the defense. When he came to Philadelphia, he pleaded for a chance to demonstrate his versatility.
The coaching staff at the time allowed him to play in the slot. He has played multiple positions for the Eagles, whether it's as a deep safety, a slot cornerback, even an extra linebacker. He can offer input on the game strategy. Jenkins saw his fingerprint throughout the defense, which is a point of pride.
"It's made my time here very entertaining," Jenkins said. "I've really enjoyed playing every week. And that's unique."
He knew it would work from the first month of his first season. He had three interceptions in his first four games, offering affirmation that he would bring the Eagles the stability at safety the franchise had lacked ever since Brian Dawkins left.
"First impressions last in this city," Jenkins said. "That was kind of my whole mentality – start the season fast."
He continued to improve, and the other safeties in his free-agent class faded. The top safety that year, Jairus Byrd, whom the Saints signed to replace Jenkins and whom many Eagles fans wanted, had three injury-plagued seasons in New Orleans and is now out of the NFL. And none of the four other safeties who received bigger deals than Jenkins remain with the teams that signed them.
"I definitely used that as fuel to kind of push myself," Jenkins said. "I don't think I did reconcile that. I just think it's something I carry with me. It's been a motivator for me ever since."
He's heard that the Saints regretted letting him go and have since tried to bring him back – "It's been expressed multiple times," Jenkins said – but it doesn't soften the way it ended for him there.
"It's still one of those things, the decision was made," Jenkins said. "It doesn't change anything."
Of course, New Orleans didn't have this Jenkins. And sometimes the Saints didn't have him at all. He missed at least one game in all five of his seasons with the Saints.
Jenkins hasn't missed a game since coming to Philadelphia. He has barely missed a practice. The Eagles will play Sunday without three of their four opening day starters from the base secondary, and the two other top defensive backs have been injured. Not Jenkins. He made a rare appearance on the injury report this past week after he was seen with a wrapped wrist during practice, but he didn't miss a snap.
His durability since coming to Philadelphia is not a coincidence. Jenkins admits a degree of luck is involved – "Some things you can't control/" But a change in weight-training philosophy during his last year in New Orleans, coupled with the sports science initiatives he learned from Chip Kelly's staff, allowed Jenkins to transform how he maintains his body. He learned more about diet, sleep, and hydration. Jenkins even adjusted how he tackled and how he uses his body.
Jenkins said there's an old way of thinking that players focus on weight training during the offseason, and then as the season goes, emphasize maintenance. That's not what Jenkins does anymore. He now believes in building during the season, with steady weightlifting throughout the year.
When Jenkins played in New Orleans, he didn't care much about sleep. It became a focus in Philadelphia, and now he monitors his rest and hydration. He has two massages each week, and adheres to a plant-based diet.
"That's just my routine," Jenkins said. "Whatever I do, it's been working."
That has allowed him to flourish on the field. That's why Jenkins was ebullient about the entire transition to Philadelphia. He likes the team and the culture; the way the city has embraced him and how he has become ingrained in it; and a scheme and coaches that maximized his ability.
"It was a combination of timing, being healthy, and new scenery," Jenkins said. "It's been good for my career."
Jenkins has an established profile in Philadelphia, and one that is growing nationally. He's a high-level player with a robust presence in the community. Jenkins can bounce with ease from the locker room to the board room to the floor of Congress and to underserved areas in Philadelphia and Camden. He can go from talking about the Eagles' red zone defense by his locker to criminal justice reform on The NBC Nightly News.
But the perception of Jenkins doesn't often go beyond the layer that he's willing to show.
"I don't think many people know my story or the doubts, or the lows of my career," Jenkins said. "People see the story line, and they think that it reads that I was a high recruit who went to Ohio State, first-round draft pick, won a Super Bowl, and I'm just collecting contracts."
What they might not know is that Jenkins hadn't draw much interest from colleges when he attended a football camp at Ohio State while visiting family in the area. He was an unknown – not an invited recruit – and he jumped to the front of the line to compete against the top receivers when others shrank at the risk of embarrassment in front of coaches. That's how he earned his scholarship.
What they might not know is that as a first-round draft pick, Jenkins first distinguished himself on special teams. He was moved from cornerback to safety early in his NFL career. And when his rookie deal expired, he was far from a marquee free agent. Those doubts that he had about his status as a player or how long his career would last don't necessarily befit the image of the uber-confident Jenkins.
"Within three years, you've got to two Pro Bowls," Jenkins said. "Four years, a Super Bowl. It's been an interesting road. But it's not something I talk about much."
But even at this point in his career, Jenkins admitted he still encounters self-doubt. Before Sunday's game, Jenkins will watch career highlights, as he does before every game. Some of those clips will be from his time with the Saints. It's a way for him to remind himself of the player he can be.
"You get to the point where you've got to decide what you're going to do," Jenkins said. "You can have confidence and doubt – those things aren't mutually exclusive – so when I have quiet moments about things where I'm struggling, doubt creeps in. But I try to remind myself where I've been, where I'm trying to go, and how I'm trying to get there. And that way I can ignore those thoughts on failure and focus on what I need to do to prepare and I've been able to be disciplined in that process."
If Jenkins has doubts about his current team, he hasn't voiced them. The confident side of Jenkins is heard more often.
He's realistic about the Eagles' plight. He knows the their season hangs in the balance and admits time is running out. He still believes the Eagles can play with any team in the NFL. When told the Eagles are underdogs this weekend, he laughed and said that it's a "natural position for us" and that they are probably more comfortable in that role.
He also knows teammates are looking at him. They're paying attention to his demeanor, how he trains. His focus is on remaining consistent and setting the tempo.
When Jenkins looks at the big picture of the Eagles' future, he is is even less worried. He doesn't see a closing window on this team, especially not with Carson Wentz. He recognizes that Wentz's second contract could change the dynamics, but he likes the young players the organization has developed and he thinks it's too early to start worrying about the future.
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"They're doing a good job making sure the window stays open as long as possible," Jenkins said.
Jenkins intends to be a part of it. He hoped when he left New Orleans and came to Philadelphia that he would reach his 10th season, and now that he's here, he's not ready to slow down. He feels healthy, and said that "as long as I love the game, still love competing, my body feels like I'm in decent shape, I'll keep going until one of those changes."
He doesn't know if this career would have happened had New Orleans kept him. That's part of why there's so much nostalgia in his first trip back to the Superdome this weekend.