Without Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles secondary would be a big ol’ mess | Mike Sielski
Since his second NFL season, Jenkins has been capable of quarterbacking a defensive backfield. His intelligence and leadership have never been more valuable to the Eagles.
As soon as the Eagles acquired him, in March 2014, Malcolm Jenkins became the youngest member of their starting secondary.
He was three years younger than Cary Williams, a year and a half younger than Bradley Fletcher, a month younger than the safety alongside him, Nate Allen – and don't those names send a familiar quiver down your spine?
It was obvious then and even more obvious now, in retrospect, why the Eagles had made Jenkins their top quarry in free agency, why they had been so happy to sign him to a three-year contract. After a season of seeing too much of the back of Patrick Chung's jersey as he ate the dust of too many open receivers, the Eagles needed a quarterback for their secondary, someone who could sort out coverage assignments and help diffuse any pre-snap uncertainty.
Jenkins already was such a player. During his second NFL season, with the New Orleans Saints in 2010, he began lining up base and nickel defenses, making calls out of each alignment, a 22-year-old kid tasked with coach-level responsibilities.
"Once I got here and got a better understanding of the defense, that expanded to the linebacker role, corner, safety, pretty much everything," he said after the Eagles practiced Wednesday. "The defense is just X's and O's at that point."
From Gregg Williams to Steve Spagnuolo to Rob Ryan in New Orleans, from Bill Davis to Jim Schwartz here, Jenkins has been a blue blanket for every defensive coordinator he has played for. Only now his presence somehow has come to matter even more. With Rodney McLeod, Corey Graham, and Sidney Jones lost to injury, Jenkins has had to help shepherd an inexperienced and relatively unseasoned group of cornerbacks and safeties from confusion to competence.
Rookie Avonte Maddox began the season as a slot corner, became a free safety in McLeod's absence, then moved back to slot corner last week once Jones suffered a hamstring strain during that Thursday night victory over the Giants. Rasul Douglas, an outside corner in his second NFL season, took over at safety for Maddox.
Those moves allowed Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills to remain as the Eagles' regular outside corners, but without McLeod, 28 years old and a seven-year NFL veteran, Jenkins has more on his plate, and if he was precocious for his age earlier in his career, he's a wise graybeard compared with his fellow defensive backs this season.
He'll turn 31 in December. He's more than five years older than anyone else who lined up in the defensive backfield against the Giants, and it's only because the Eagles signed free-agent corner Dexter McDougle, 27, this week that the same age gap might not exist against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
"No," Jenkins said, "you won't call me old."
What you can call him is indispensable. Jenkins is one of just two Eagles to have played all 385 defensive snaps this season – linebacker Jordan Hicks is the other – and he was on the field for 92 percent of the defense's snaps last season, the highest percentage of any member of the unit. Fletcher Cox might be the Eagles' best defensive player, but Jenkins is their most important, most versatile, and most intelligent.
As well as Maddox has played at safety since replacing McLeod there, imagine the state of the secondary without Jenkins, without his knowledge of the overall scheme, without his ability to play any or all of the defensive backfield positions, even if just for a snap or two. It would be a mess.
"The biggest thing you worry about, I think, is the communication," said Jenkins, who re-signed with the Eagles in February 2016 for another five years. "You have me out there, but Rodney was a guy who could get other guys lined up, who could problem-solve, make calls on the fly, make adjustments without being coaches.
"That's the biggest thing you look for, but Avonte's done a good job for two weeks, getting the calls out, especially last week. I was telling everybody: This is probably the most complicated game plan we had, on a short week, and he executed it to a T. That's been a pleasant surprise. That's the hardest part, I think, for a young guy making that transition: having to make all the calls and be the guy who sets the defense."
A long time ago, Malcolm Jenkins was that same young guy. He was readier than most. It was why he came to Philadelphia in the first place. It all comes easier to him now, the X's and O's, and it all comes easier to the Eagles because of him.