The defense changes in 2016 for the Eagles with Jim Schwartz overseeing the operation, but the requirements are still going to be similar: Tackle well, cover receivers, find the football and stay on top of the mental game. Keeping safety Malcolm Jenkins as the leader of the secondary now and for years to come is an important piece of the puzzle.
Continuing the emphasis on retaining roster stability and extending the contracts of some key players, the Eagles and Jenkins agreed to terms Monday on a new five-year contract. It means that Jenkins, who was entering the final year of the contract he signed when the joined the Eagles as an unrestricted free agent prior to the 2014 season, can focus on football and football only as the defense looks to turn things around and head in the right direction under Schwartz.
"I think Malcolm does a lot of things for you," Schwartz said earlier in the offseason. "He's got cover skills, which you need in the game today. He tackles well and he obviously has a great command out there. He helps you have some flexibility with what you want to do on the back end of the defense."
Jenkins' 2015 season was arguably the best of his career (he graded out as the best safety in the NFL by Pro Football Focus) as he registered career highs in tackles (120), passes defensed (15) and forced fumbles (3). Jenkins also had a pair of interceptions, one that he returned 99 yards for a touchdown in the win over New England. And for the second consecutive season, Jenkins, a 2009 first-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints, played in nearly 100 percent of the team's defensive snaps (he missed 2 snaps in 2015 and 5 snaps in 2014), no small feat for a player who was on the field for a whopping 1,214 snaps last season – and added another 148 snaps (and nine tackles, fourth most on the team) on special teams. Voted as an alternate to the Pro Bowl, Jenkins made his way to Hawaii for the well-deserved honor.
"Malcolm Jenkins is one of the best in the NFL," safeties coach Tim Hauck said in early February. "I think he's still going up."
It's been a busy few weeks of signing their own for the Eagles, who have inked tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek, offensive tackle Lane Johnson, defensive end Vinny Curry, linebacker Najee Goode and now Jenkins to new contracts. Each deal makes sense, from moves to keep Curry and Goode off the free-agent market to making sure young core players like Johnson and Ertz are in place for years to come to retaining veteran leaders who are still productive players like Celek and Jenkins.
Jenkins' ability to play in coverage in nickel situations – when the Eagles use five defensive backs instead of four – is a huge asset in a league that spreads the field and creates favorable one-on-one matchups for the offense. Jenkins played as much as 30 percent of his snaps in the nickel, according to Pro Football Focus, and he often had the challenge of covering small, quick slot receivers. Jenkins is also able to cover tight ends, and he's been excellent in run support, has blitzed effectively and generally did it all for former defensive coordinator Bill Davis.
How will Jenkins' role change with Schwartz in charge? The Eagles are going to use a four-man front with three linebackers, and the safeties will be needed to add their all-around skills to get to the football. The safeties, as Hauck mentioned upon joining the team, are largely going to be interchangeable and while the front changes and the X's and O's will be different, the basic tenants remain.
"You're looking for good football players," Hauck said. "I think we have some here."
Jenkins is one of them, and he's going to be around to grow in the scheme. Who joins him remains a question, what with 2015 starter Walter Thurmond scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 9 and none of the other safeties on the roster – Chris Maragos, Ed Reynolds and Jerome Couplin – proven starters at this level. So, there is work to be done to solidify safety.
But the week starts with the good news that Jenkins has his contract extended and the Eagles can cross off another to-do item on their offseason list. A free-agent signee in 2014, Jenkins has found his NFL home in Philadelphia, where he should have a chance to play well in Schwartz's defensive system.
In light of his new deal, we're taking a look at the best of Malcolm Jenkins throughout his career as an Eagle. View the full gallery here...