Malcolm Jenkins completed his best season in the NFL by earning a Pro Bowl trip as a safety in 2015, except Jenkins pointed out that his production came because he was not always the safety.
Jenkins moved to slot cornerback when the Eagles played nickel defense last season, allowing him to thrive in a role he feels he plays best. Now he is entering his eighth season in the NFL in a new scheme, but he's hoping it includes the responsibilities he held last season.
"My best years in this league since I stepped in, playing the slot has been my most productive," Jenkins said. "Hopefully that role is still available. But we have a lot of depth at corner right now, a lot of guys we're still evaluating. I probably won't know for sure until Week 1, to be honest."
That might not happen this season. The Eagles have more depth at cornerback than at safety, even if the starters are not nearly as praiseworthy. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has used Leodis McKelvin, Nolan Carroll, and Ron Brooks as his top three cornerbacks, and the Eagles might stick to that trio with Jenkins and Rodney McLeod established as their safety combination.
Jenkins has not had much time this summer in the defense. He missed two weeks because of a hamstring injury that kept him inside during practices, rehabbing while other players went through the toughest camp Jenkins experienced since he arrived in Philadelphia in 2014. He said he took all the time he needed off and is still working his way back, but Jenkins is the type of player who values training camp and the preseason. He doesn't expect to walk onto the field Sept. 11 ready to click.
He is back on the field this week at his starting safety spot. Because he is one of the leaders, the absence gave him a chance to analyze the defense without him. He was impressed with the way his teammates played Thursday - and he noted it wasn't just the acclaimed defensive line but also the secondary.
Jenkins pointed to the performances of backup safeties Chris Maragos and Jaylen Watkins. Maragos is a veteran entering his third season with the team, but Watkins is transitioning from cornerback to safety, similar to the way Jenkins did early in his career with the Saints. One of the challenges for Watkins is accepting that this is his position - and it's something Jenkins joked that he's still trying to understand.
"You never accept that," Jenkins said. "I'm still a corner in my mind. You've just got to know your strengths and know what you did best. Even though I play safety, most of the time I was in slot. I was covering and do what I do best, even though I'm labeled as a safety."
When Jenkins discussed what he could improve upon at 28, he found it to be similar advice to what he offered Watkins. Jenkins said what he does best is what he's comfortable with from his time at cornerback: covering the slot receiver and tight end and playing in the box. Where he wants to be more productive is playing deep safety. He expects the Eagles to use left and right safeties instead of free and strong because he and McLeod have similar skill sets, so he's spending the summer focusing on the back end of the defense.
"This point of training camp gives me that opportunity because they're evaluating a lot of other guys in the slot, so 100 percent of my time is spent back deep in the safety position," Jenkins said. "So that's really my point of emphasis right now: Key the quarterback, recognize the formations, and be able to make plays in the back end."
His post-practice work on the JUGS machine also revealed another area where Jenkins knows he can improve: catching. Jenkins had two interceptions last season and a career-high three in 2014, and he knows those totals could be higher if he can make more plays on the ball. It's been a weakness in his career, but it's noticeable because Jenkins puts himself in position to make plays. And if the Eagles' defensive line can apply as much pressure as the team thinks it can, there could be more turnover opportunities for the defensive backs.
"That's been my key this whole offseason, being able to take advantage of all the plays that come," Jenkins said. "I think I've done a really good job putting myself in position to make plays and get pass breakups and all that, but I think me personally, taking my game to the next level is to come up with that production and those interceptions."