31 August 2011

Malcolm Jenkins' Rise

Malcolm Jenkins' rise to the upper echelon of NFL defensive backs isn't much of a surprise to anyone who has closely followed Jenkins' football career for any period of time.

Since 2009, Saints' fans have watched Jenkins' seamless integration into a demanding league, and further witnessed his immediate, successful transition from corner back to 2nd-team all-pro safety in just one offseason.

Watching Jenkins reminds one of a young Charles Woodson: spectacularly talented, menacingly tough, single-mindedly determined, exceptionally versatile, and selflessly focused on helping his team win.

That the Saints were fortunate enough to land Jenkins with the 14th pick of the 2009 NFL Draft makes one question the competency of the thirteen NFL GMs who deigned to believe that Jenkins wasn't a fit for their respective teams.

Heading into the 2011 season, the Saints' third-year pro seems more like a seasoned veteran than the precocious playmaker of just 23 years. To say that his demeanor and maturity defy his youth is to understand that Jenkins only wants one thing: greatness.

What follows is a timeline of the iterations of Jenkins' burgeoning pro career.

January 7, 2008
Jenkins and the Ohio State Buckeyes fall short in the BCS Championship game against the LSU Tigers in the Superdome. Playing in a game stocked with future NFL players, Jenkins acquits himself well and intercepts a pass. 

What he doesn't know is that within 15 months, the Superdome will be his professional home.

April 25, 2009
The Saints select Jenkins with the 14th pick of the draft, shoring up a glaring need in the defensive backfield. Heading into the combine and draft process, Jenkins is the clear-cut, top-rated corner back of the draft class and is the first defensive back ultimately selected.

Concerns over Jenkins' straight-line speed surface prior to draft, and speculation mounts that Jenkins might be a better fit as a free safety in the NFL. Regardless, scouts and draft specialists largely praise Jenkins and view him as a top prospect with high character.

In the days leading up to the draft, noted NFL draft expert Nolan Nawrocki describes Jenkins as standing out for his "maturity and humble attitude;" reports that Jenkins' "makeup is most ideally suited for the safety position;" and asserts that talent evaluators are most impressed with Jenkins' "confidence, overall character, and the way he's carried himself in team interviews."

Upon drafting Jenkins, Coach Payton notes Jenkins' "toughness," "intelligence," and "character" as the defining qualities of the first round selection.

Expectations are high. 

September 27, 2009
In the third game of the 2009 regular season, Saints' fans get an early glimpse of Jenkins' playmaking ability. 

With six minutes to play in the first half against the Buffalo Bills, Jenkins makes his first big play, stripping the ball from Bills' punt returner Roscoe Parrish and then recovering the fumble. This leads to a Saints' FG; the Saints take a three point into halftime and never relinquish the lead.

February 7, 2010
Jenkins plays a significant role in the Saints' Super Bowl victory against the Indianapolis Colts. He mans the nickel spot for the majority of the game, and finishes with five solo tackles (second on the team), one tackle for a loss, and one pass defended.

In just one season, Jenkins displays a mastery of Gregg Williams' complex schemes and significantly contributes as a rookie on a veteran-laden Super Bowl-winning team. The rapid development in his first year will mirror his growth in his second season.

September 9, 2010
Jenkins opens the 2010 season as the Saints' starting free safety, replacing injured all-pro Darren Sharper. During the 2010 offseason, Jenkins works studiously to make the transition from corner back to free safety. 

About Jenkins' progress and abilities in the 2010 preseason, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams states that Jenkins is "special" and "[plays] so well every day." 

Grounded to the end, Jenkins credits his teammate Sharper with facilitating the transition to free safety. 

November 25, 2010
In the nationally-televised afternoon game on Thanksgiving Day, Jenkins single-handedly saves the game for the Saints. With four minutes left in the game, and the Cowboys leading 27-23, Jenkins chases down and strips Cowboys' WR Roy Williams, then recovers the fumble at the Saints' 11 yard line. 

The Saints soon convert the turnover into the winning points, and Jenkins proves himself a standout on the national stage.  In the aftermath of the game, Cowboys' WR Roy Williams admits Jenkins "made a great play" while fellow Saints' safety Roman Harper says that Jenkins is "going to be a Pro Bowl player for years to come." 

Two weeks later against the St. Louis Rams, Jenkins intercepts two passes deep in Saints' territory including one he returns 96 yards for a game-changing TD just before the first half ends. 

In the span of three weeks, Jenkins wins two NFC Defensive Player of the Week awards and establishes himself among the most promising young safeties in the league.

ESPN's NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas says that Jenkins has emerged "as one of the best safeties in the league." 

January 8, 2011
The Saints lose a wild-card game at Seattle, giving up 41 points in the process (a season high). Malcolm Jenkins misses the game with a kneecap injury sustained in the regular season finale, and the Saints' defensive backfield is exposed without him. Jenkins' value to the defense is more clear than ever following the loss.

August 2011
Jenkins has prepared for the 2011 regular season by, among other things, studying film from each of 2010's games several times. He's also taken on a mentorship role with rookie CB Johnny Patrick, easing Patrick's transition into the league. 

With a continued focus on improving, Jenkins has impressed his colleagues to the point that former Saints' teammate, DE Alex Brown, recently stated that Jenkins is one of three "special" players he's played with in his football career (the other two being Brian Urlacher and Jevon Kearse). 

With high praise comes high demand for results. 

As the 2011 season descends on opening kickoff, expectations for both Malcolm Jenkins and the Saints remain exceedingly high. 

If recent history is any indicator, those expectations are well within reach.