MALCOLM JENKINS has been practicing in the Eagles' defense for a few weeks now. Yesterday, Jenkins and his new friends lined up opposite the offense for the first time, as the Birds kicked off their 2014 organized team activities.
"It's one of those defenses that's very complex for the offense, but should work for us," said Jenkins, the Eagles' biggest offseason defensive addition. "It's obviously led by DeMeco [Ryans, the middle linebacker] and everything he does. He's the centerpiece. Then you've got a pass rush that can get after the quarterback. The thing they were looking for is a safety that can come in and get everybody lined up, bring a sense of calm to the back end and be versatile, play in the slot and on the tight ends, pressure and just solidify that back end."
Jenkins is the safety the Eagles went for in free agency to do those things, though yesterday he said that Nate Allen, brought back on a 1-year deal, "is a smart guy, knows the defense." The early plan seems to be for Jenkins and Allen to start at the team's most troublesome defensive position over the past 5 years, though 2013 rookie Earl Wolff could eventually supplant Allen, and fifth-round rookie Ed Reynolds waits in reserve, along with ex-Seahawk Chris Maragos.
"I think it's just a young defense that wants to be great, that works hard," said Jenkins, a starter for the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV who has yet to live up to his billing as the 14th player chosen in the 2009 draft, when he was a cornerback out of Ohio State. "From the guys up front to the back end, guys put in extra work. Right now we're trying to jell as a unit, feeling each other out, but that's what we're building."
Chip Kelly lauded Jenkins' versatility when Jenkins signed in March. "Versatility" became an offseason catchphrase for the Eagles, clearly one of the things Kelly wanted to improve going into his second season. To Jenkins, that means his background as a corner comes into play, that he can slide into the nickel slot, that neither Jenkins nor Allen is pegged as strictly a cover safety or a box safety.
"You have to be all over the place and know every [defensive backfield] position," Jenkins said. "One, you have to have the athletic ability, then you have to be intelligent enough to kinda learn those different positions on the field. Those are the things I enjoy. I watch a lot of film. I really enjoy it, and me and Nate also have sat down . . . we've just talked about how we see the defense playing out, how we can use different tools to match up against offenses so that we're always on the same page. There's been a lot of meetings and dialogue back and forth, making sure we see things the same way.
"But as far as learning the defense, it's actually pretty simple, once you get the rules down. I've gotten those. We've been able to install now maybe three times, and do it right. Now it's just about tweaking those rules for specific situations - there's a different way you're going to play it on third-and-2 than you would on third-and-7."
Jenkins played against the Eagles in the 26-24 playoff loss to the Saints that ended Kelly's first Eagles season. What were Jenkins' impressions of the defense, from the New Orleans sideline?
"We realized early in the game that their pass rush was something to be feared. I think they hit [quarterback Drew Brees] a couple times. So we got out of that game plan and went heavily to the run game, which I don't think anybody expected the Saints to do," he said.
The Birds, 10th against the run in 2013 and 32nd against the pass, had their safeties playing deep to defend against Brees and his aerial weapons, most notably tight end Jimmy Graham. New Orleans ended up running for 185 yards on 36 carries, playing without injured leading rusher Pierre Thomas.
"I'm sure that's something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, that the last game, you didn't stop the run," Jenkins said. "Guys up front especially take that to heart."
Jenkins gave similarly blunt assessments during a guest appearance as an NFL Network analyst in April. He declared he did not "see the light at the end of the tunnel" for Dallas' 32nd-ranked defense - while noting that the Cowboys previously made coordinator Rob Ryan a scapegoat, before watching him go to New Orleans and help the Saints' D.
He said if the Giants can't protect Eli Manning better, "then Eli's best days are behind him," and he questioned whether Washington QB Robert Griffin III has the mindset to do what he needs to do to avoid injury.
To people accustomed to clichéd blandishments, this came off as "trash talk." That was not how Jenkins intended it.
"I was critical even of the Eagles last year, how we were 32nd in the league against the pass," Jenkins said. "I understand [the reaction], but that's what they put me on the air for, to analyze, not to build everybody up."
Jenkins knows what a winning locker room feels like, having spent his career up to now with Sean Payton and Brees.
"The thing that's similar, and that I enjoy the most, is that you've got a lot of guys here in the locker room that want to be great," Jenkins said. "They all have the same idea, that their season ended too early last year. Whenever you have that mentality as a team, when everybody feels like this is supposed to be the year, that's a special feeling."
The Eagles signed second-round receiver Jordan Matthews to the requisite 4-year contract, leaving only first-round linebacker Marcus Smith unsigned . . .
Malcolm Jenkins sponsors a 2-day free youth football camp every year in his hometown of Piscataway, N.J., open to kids from anywhere. "We also have sessions for the parents, on how to recognize and prevent injuries, concussions, how to recognize symptoms and effects, the importance of nutrition and hydration," he said. "One thing we've got this year that's been donated by one of our sponsors - each kid who attends the camp gets a free voucher for a baseline concussion test, the same test NFL players get. If they ever get a concussion, they have that baseline test done" to compare the results against. The camp, June 20-21, can accommodate up to 400 kids. More information is available at Malcolmjenkinsfoundation.org.
On Twitter: @LesBowen