NFL Nation: Malcolm Jenkins

Malcolm Jenkins only echoed what others have said about Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. And the new Philadelphia Eagles safety didn't question Griffin's game, but, rather his ability to stay healthy. At this point, it's a fair topic. Of course, maybe it's not one a player new to the division might want to address. But then again, it was tame compared to his thoughts on the Dallas defense.

Jenkins
When Jenkins appeared on the NFL Network, he discussed the other three teams in the NFC East. He took a shot at Dallas' defense, as well as the New York Giants' ability to protect Eli Manning. Here's what he had to say about Griffin:
"I think the biggest thing we're going to see is [Robert Griffin III] take that next step as far as the cerebral approach to the game. But the biggest concern I have with RG3 is, will he protect himself? And that's a thing he hasn't done early in his career.

"He scrambles, he gets those extra yards, he makes those throws out of the pocket, but takes a lot of unnecessary hits. We've seen the toll that has had on him.

“Last year he really wasn't himself, still trying to recover from that injury. Those kind of hits, when you talk about a QB, it's all about accountability and availability. He's very very accountable, but availability is going to be an issue if he continues to play the style of football that he's used to."

Jenkins isn't the first opponent to wonder about Griffin's durability or his health. In the past year, several players did just that, including Dallas corner Brandon Carr, San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks and New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle among them.

But Jenkins is new to the division and his yapping does two things: endear him to Eagles beat reporters and mark him as a target for other teams. With Griffin, there's only one way to prove Jenkins and many others wrong. He needs to stay healthy; it's not about one game or one throw, it's about a season and then a string of them. And Jenkins didn't knock his game, just questioned his durability.

Dallas' defense might feel a little differently about Jenkins. But when a defense ends the season ranked 32nd in yards allowed and 26th in points allowed, and then loses its best pass-rushers (Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware), well, it leaves little room for anything but criticism. So here's what Jenkins said:
“A couple years ago, their scapegoat was Rob Ryan, and they got rid of him, and he was the cause of all their problems. He went to New Orleans and took the worst defense in NFL history and turned them into a top 5 defense. So he couldn't have been the problem.

“And then you look at this year, I had the best seat in the house when I watched the Saints get 40 first downs in one game. Forty. In one game. So it must be the players.”

And then Eli Manning was the topic. Again, good, honest stuff.
"I think the problem is he was sacked 39 times, a career high last year. If that continues, Eli's best days are behind him. If they can protect him, then maybe, but it doesn't look like it."

When Jenkins played for Ohio State (my alma mater, as you might know), I preferred that he keep quiet. Typically his game spoke volumes. In the NFL, he's been up and down, but there's no doubt he now has a role as a future analyst. As a reporter, I'll never knock a guy for giving an honest opinion. Sort of helps the job, you know?

For Malcolm Jenkins, versatility is key

April, 4, 2014
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The Philadelphia Eagles could have gone a variety of ways at safety when free agency opened.

Jenkins
There was Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward, and both players certainly would have helped immensely. The Eagles decided to sign Malcolm Jenkins to a three-year deal worth a reported $16.25 million.

The addition of Jenkins clearly strengthened the Eagles’ secondary. Jenkins was a first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2009, No. 14 overall. His new role will be helping to anchor a secondary, which needed an upgrade.

Safe to say that Jenkins is ready.

“I'm a football junkie,” Jenkins told reporters after being signed by the Eagles. “I can be the quarterback of the defense. When I have the freedom to move around and not be stagnant, that's when I have my best years. I'm not your typical safety. I'm more of that hybrid that the league is moving to with the bigger tight ends, the faster tight ends. You need guys who can be versatile.”

Jenkins’ versatility will be helpful since he has the ability to play deep, in the slot or even cover the tight end. This will allow defensive coordinator Bill Davis to disguise some coverages and blitz schemes.

More than just X’s and O’s, Jenkins was fascinated by coach Chip Kelly and how he turned around the Eagles in just one season. Jenkins wanted to be a part of the transformation.

“I think even before we played them, I think to everybody it was apparent by Week 4 or 5 that there was something different about this team with Chip Kelly, and it caught the attention of a lot of people,” Jenkins told reporters. “So that was my first impression was that he knows how to win, he knows what he’s going to win with and they’re trying to get players that will fit his scheme. Not necessarily the best players, but players that will buy in to what he’s selling. I’ve been a part of winning teams before and that’s where it starts. It starts with good leadership from the top down.”

Jenkins had 68 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two interceptions for the Saints last season.

Byrd and Ward may have been better options, but Jenkins is certainly a major improvement.
The Philadelphia Eagles were active in keeping their own players, such as Jeremy Maclin, Jason Kelce and Riley Cooper. They were active in signing free agents, such as safety Malcolm Jenkins, and trading for running back Darren Sproles.

But the biggest move was cutting wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who stayed in the NFC East by signing with the Washington Redskins.

In ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper's Grade A draft, he plays general manager for the Eagles, not Howie Roseman or Chip Kelly. What would Mel do as GM?

Find out here. Insider


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So far the Philadelphia Eagles have re-signed key their own players, such as Jason Kelce, Riley Cooper, Jeremy Maclin and Nate Allen, and added pieces like Malcolm Jenkins and Nolan Carroll.

They have not, however, added any pieces to help the pass rush.

[+] EnlargeTrent Cole
AP Photo/Michael PerezTrent Cole led the Eagles in sacks last season, but the team's pass rush could use reinforcements.
The Eagles recorded 37 sacks in 2013, which ranked 20th in the NFL. Trent Cole led the team with eight sacks. Connor Barwin had five and three players -- DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks and Vinny Curry -- had four apiece.


"It's hard to find pass rushers, especially on the open market," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said in this Philadelphia Daily News story. "There aren't a lot of teams letting them go. And then you look at the draft and where those guys go, they go high.

"Certainly, you want to continue to add pass rushers. But we feel we have some guys we think can rush the passer and fit what we're doing at the outside linebacker position."

Philadelphia had interest in DeMarcus Ware, and the Cowboys were not keen on possibly seeing their all-time leader in sacks twice a year, but the Denver Broncos swooped in with an offer Ware could not refuse ($20 million guaranteed).

In free agency, Shaun Phillips has 3-4 experience from his time with the San Diego Chargers, but the pickings are thin.

As the Eagles move into their second year in the 3-4 scheme, they will have a better feel for what they want in an outside linebacker. Projecting a college defensive end to outside linebacker in a 3-4 is never easy, but it is something the Pittsburgh Steelers have excelled at for years.

The two best in this year's draft, Buffalo's Khalil Mack and UCLA's Anthony Barr, figure to be gone by the time the Eagles pick in the first round.

In a division with quarterbacks such as Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Robert Griffin III, finding pass rushers is more important than pass defenders.

Free-agency review: Eagles

March, 18, 2014
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Jenkins
Most significant signing: Considering the struggles at safety the past couple of seasons, Malcolm Jenkins has to be the most significant signing. Jenkins is coming off a strong season, but has been inconsistent in the past. He might not be a Pro Bowler, but he's a definite upgrade over what Philadelphia has had of late. His versatility -- he's a former college corner -- is a big plus.

Most significant loss: The Eagles haven't had a significant loss. One free agent who left was backup defensive end Clifton Geathers, who signed with Washington. But that's hardly significant -- for either team. Quarterback Michael Vick hasn't drawn a lot of attention in free agency, which suggests many teams agree with the Eagles that his career is at, or very near, the end.

Sproles
Biggest surprise: The trade for running back Darren Sproles. Had New Orleans just cut Sproles, it's possible the Eagles would have lost out on him. And it's not as if he was a strong need. But Sproles was a terrific weapon to add for this offense because of his versatility -- he can line up anywhere and catch passes. His presence also means the Eagles could be creative in how they deal with other players -- a trade to recoup some draft picks perhaps? Or it could just mean they have another player defenses must worry about. He might not be the same as he was three years ago, but the Eagles don't need Sproles to be that dynamic given who else they have on the roster.

What's next? The Eagles still need more help on defense, even after also signing cornerback Nolan Carroll. The secondary in particular could be strengthened more -- perhaps with strong safety Calvin Pryor in the draft? The Eagles have added depth and key special teams players. They need to find a few players to develop into starters in the draft.
IRVING, Texas -- About three days into free agency and the Dallas Cowboys are not a better team today than they were on Monday.

They cut DeMarcus Ware. They cut Miles Austin. They have signed two defensive linemen in Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain that figure to be rotation parts, not cornerstone pieces.

Meanwhile elsewhere in the NFC East …

The Philadelphia Eagles have added Malcom Jenkins and Noland Carroll and traded for Darren Sproles. The Eagles also did some nice special teams' shopping with Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman and also re-signed their punter, Donnie Jones.

The New York Giants added a piece to their offensive line in Geoff Schwartz and brought in running back Rashad Jennings. The key move, however, was re-signing linebacker Jon Beason. They backed out of a deal with O'Brien Schofield.

The Washington Redskins have added wide receiver Andre Roberts, guard Shawn Lauvao and linebacker/special teamer Adam Hayward. Bruce Campbell is a low-risk help to the offensive line.

Too often we get caught up in the splashes in free agency only to see them not live up to the billing down the road.

Before free agency started Stephen Jones said the Cowboys would be efficient with their spending in free agency. To see them sit back and wait should not be surprising, but that doesn't mean fans can't be aggravated.

There are good players still to be had. The Cowboys could still re-sign Jason Hatcher or add Henry Melton. While they can afford both, I don't think signing both would make sense. They could keep Anthony Spencer and hope his repaired knee comes around. They could take fliers on some of the bigger names you want if those prices come down as free agency rolls along.

As maddening as the 8-8 finishes have been, the Cowboys have been the only team in the NFC East to compete for a division title the last three years. It's a hollow accomplishment for sure, especially when stacked up against the franchise's history, but spending for spending sake is not the best solution.

There is a plan and it has to be more than Mincey and McClain, right?
Malcolm Jenkins has heard the criticism. Playing for New Orleans in 2012, Jenkins was one of three safeties in the NFL to miss more than 20 tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Last season, the former first-round draft pick was one of nine safeties to miss more than 15.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans Malcolm Jenkins
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsMalcolm Jenkins (27), whose tackling skills leave a lot to be desired, insists that won't be a problem in Philadelphia.
Jenkins gets it. He played cornerback at Ohio State. The Saints drafted him 14th overall in 2009 to play cornerback. He transitioned to safety in 2010 only because Darren Sharper was injured.

Tackling isn't his strong suit.

"The biggest thing I need to work on: tackling," Jenkins said Wednesday night after meeting his new coach, Chip Kelly, for the first time at the Philadelphia Eagles' South Philadelphia training complex.

But, Jenkins added, "I don't see that as a problem" moving forward.

The Eagles should hope not.

A two-time defensive captain in New Orleans, Jenkins said that the Eagles sold him on the fact that they want him to be a leader on the defense. Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis want Jenkins to be the voice of the secondary on the field. They want him to be versatile, to blitz and to cover. And, Jenkins said, they like the fact that he is "not your typical safety" but is more of a hybrid who can defend tight ends and receivers alike.

For his part, Jenkins said he liked that Philadelphia is close to where he grew up in North Jersey. He said he appreciated the fact that Kelly has a "vision" for what he wants his team to look like and is moving in the right direction after making the playoffs in his first season as head coach. And he was attracted to the fact that Kelly and Davis want him to be a leader.

Asked if he knew about Kelly's in-season routine that includes practice on Tuesday, typically the players' day off for most NFL teams, Jenkins said, "It's a little weird ... [but] that's fine.

"I'm sure there will be a lot of things I have to adjust to."

Like higher expectations. Eagles fans have been yearning for a hard-hitting safety ever since Philadelphia inexplicably let the beloved Brian Dawkins walk in free agency years ago.

"Me and Brian Dawkins are a lot different in styles," Jenkins said, before adding that he thinks Eagles fans just want a safety who is a playmaker.

As for the other questions about his coverage abilities and his tackling, the 26-year-old Jenkins said, "The years in which I was put in position to make plays, I made them."

Jenkins signed a three-year deal with the Eagles and said he drew interest from St. Louis and Oakland.
Jennings
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It's official: The Green Bay Packers will have a new starting free safety next season.

We don't know who it will be, but we know it won't be M.D. Jennings.

After starting every game for the Packers last season, Jennings wasn't even offered a restricted free-agent tender before Tuesday's deadline. On Wednesday, he signed a one-year contract with the Chicago Bears.

Given how ineffective Jennings was last season, the decision not to tender him was expected. Although Jennings was a full-time starter last season, the Packers tried to replace him at various points, using Chris Banjo early in the season and Sean Richardson late in the year.

Jennings was part of a safety group that failed to come up with a single interception last season. The Packers were the only team in the NFL that did not get an interception from one of their safeties in 2013.

Jennings, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Arkansas State, will be best remembered for being on the wrong end of the Fail Mary play against the Seattle Seahawks in 2012. Jennings thought he intercepted a pass that instead was ruled the game-winning touchdown by Golden Tate.

The Packers were not involved in any of the first wave of safeties to sign shortly after free agency opened Tuesday. Six safeties -- Donte Whitner, T.J. Ward, Antoine Bethea, Malcolm Jenkins, Jairus Byrd and Mike Mitchell -- all signed significant contracts within the first 24 hours of free agency with Byrd's deal (six years, $64 million with the New Orleans Saints) topping the market.

Last month at the scouting combine, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Micah Hyde likely will play some at safety this season, but it's unclear if the second-year defensive back will make a full-time transition from cornerback.

Jennings might not be the only Packers player on the Bears’ radar. According to the Chicago Tribune, they have interest in Packers outside linebacker/defensive end Mike Neal, who is an unrestricted free agent.

Also on Wednesday, the Packers set up their first free-agent visit. Former Houston Texans tight end Owen Daniels will meet with the Packers. Daniels, who played at the University of Wisconsin, was released by the Texans last week in a cost-cutting move. Daniels missed all but five games last season because of a broken leg.

The Packers are in the market for a tight end because they could lose both Jermichael Finley (who is visiting the Seahawks) and free agent Andrew Quarless.
DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen and Julius PeppersGetty ImagesHow will aging pass-rushers DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen and Julius Peppers fare in free agency?

If you blinked Monday afternoon between the hours of 4 p.m. ET and 6 p.m. ET, you probably missed a few transactions during an intense open to the 2014 NFL free-agent market. By my count, 28 players agreed to terms on multiyear deals with new teams in about 120 minutes. Another dozen or so scheduled visits with teams they seemed likely to sign with.

A late-night round of action capped a remarkable day for the safety position. It also left available three Hall of Fame pass-rushers, strengthened the Atlanta Falcons, revealed the desperation of the Cleveland Browns and called into question the long-term plan (if there is one) of Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie.

Let's run through the highs, lows -- and everything in between -- on Day 1.

  • The frequency of agreements in the first few minutes of the open market revealed the reality of the preceding three-day "negotiating period." Plenty of under-the-table deals were completed long before 4 p.m. ET, despite rules to the contrary. I don't have a problem with it, to be honest. Discussions about contract parameters naturally lead to common ground. There's no reason to fight it, and the NFL might as well remove the stipulation "preventing" agreements during this period in future years.
  • As noted by ESPN Stats & Information, the class of 477 total free agents was the smallest since 2009 (444). That trend speaks to the growing number of players who re-signed with their existing teams before free agency began.
  • I don't think anyone would have guessed that six safeties would sign market-level deals in musical-chair fashion during the opening hours of free agency. But there was Donte Whitner signing with the Cleveland Browns, T.J. Ward moving from the Browns to the Denver Broncos and Antoine Bethea replacing Whitner with the 49ers. Later, Jairus Byrd signed with the New Orleans Saints to replace Malcolm Jenkins, who had agreed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Oh, and Mike Mitchell moved from Carolina Panthers to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Got all that?
  • [+] EnlargeByrd
    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesJairus Byrd was one of the many safeties who found a new home on Day 1 of free agency.
    Byrd's six-year, $54 million deal was the second-most lucrative for an unrestricted free agent on Day 1, based on the $9 million average per year (APY). When the week began, the Saints had about $3 million in salary-cap space, so for the moment it's a mystery how they can sign Byrd while still being in compliance. Trading running back Darren Sproles and restructuring some other deals would help. Regardless, the Saints couldn't pass up the opportunity to pair a three-time Pro Bowl player with rising star Kenny Vaccaro in their defensive backfield. Byrd has 22 interceptions since he was drafted in 2009. Only Asante Samuel (25) has more over that stretch.
  • Why were safeties valued so highly? (Other than Ward, each member of the group got at least $5 million annually.) I posed that question to Matt Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN.com. Williamson pointed to several reasons, including the increasing difficulty of devising schemes to face athletic tight ends. Many teams consider big safeties the best antidote, especially considering the prevalence of "12" personnel (one running back, two tight ends). Williamson believes defenses will continue countering "12" personnel with "big nickel" schemes that feature three safeties and two cornerbacks rather than the other way around. And finally, we can't forget that the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks have two stud safeties in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Thomas, in fact, tweeted late Monday night: "Copy cat league."
  • I wonder if that new ideal for big defensive backs extended to cornerback Aqib Talib who pulled in a stunning haul from the Broncos that included $26 million guaranteed. Talib is excellent in coverage but is built like many safeties at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds. Still, this qualifies as arguably the riskiest decisions of the day. In seven previous seasons, Talib has never played in all 16 games.
  • Almost all of the players who signed big deals Tuesday, and really over the past few weeks, were under 30 years old. That fact brings up a fascinating philosophical issue that will play out over the coming days: How much should a trio of Hall of Fame pass-rushers, all on the wrong side of that unofficial age limit, get paid? Julius Peppers (34) and DeMarcus Ware (31) were released Tuesday, while Jared Allen (31) is an unrestricted free agent. Of the three, Ware seemed most likely to cash in after his unexpected release. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Denver Broncos were the favorites to sign him. But age and Ware's 2013 production decrease are all part of the negotiating pot.
  • Speaking of age, the Browns got older at safety and linebacker with their decision to sign Whitner and Karlos Dansby, respectively. Whitner is a year older than Ward, while Dansby is two years older than D'Qwell Jackson. Dansby will turn 33 in November and the Browns still guaranteed him $14 million. It's rare in this NFL climate to see that combination of numbers. The Browns were in a hurry on Tuesday. To do what? I'm not entirely sure, but to do something.
  • The Falcons took a step toward a more traditional 3-4 defense by signing a true nose tackle in Paul Soliai and a big defensive end in Tyson Jackson. Anyone who watched the Falcons' defense last season knows it needed to get stronger up front; they allowed the second-highest average per rush (5.0) on carries between the tackles last season. The Falcons paid handsomely to fix that problem, giving Soliai more than $6 million annually and Jackson about $5 million, but they filled an important need.
  • The Falcons' spending was overshadowed in their own division by the Saints' acquisition of Byrd and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' spending spree. The Bucs remade their defense in a hurry by signing defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and cornerback Alterraun Verner. Coach Lovie Smith has final say over personnel, and it's pretty clear he didn't want to wait until the draft to get to work.
  • Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie is operating 180 degrees from mentor Ted Thompson, who spends his money almost exclusively to retain internal prospects. McKenzie, armed with more than $60 million in salary-cap space, allowed two of his young players to leave and gave one of the biggest contracts of the day to an offensive lineman the St. Louis Rams were willing to part ways with. The Arizona Cardinals poached left tackle Jared Veldheer with a contract that was lower in value (about $7 million annually) than what McKenzie paid to sign guard/tackle Rodger Saffold (more than $8 million annually). McKenzie also let the Chicago Bears sign defensive end Lamarr Houston and the New York Giants sign running back Rashad Jennings. I'm willing to be patient and see what else McKenzie might have planned, but I'm not sure if owner Mark Davis will be. (Update: Overnight, the Raiders signed offensive tackle Austin Howard to a contract that included $15 million guaranteed, per Schefter. They also made plans to host free agent defensive end Justin Tuck and linebacker LaMarr Woodley.)
  • As expected, receivers paid the price for what is expected to be a deep draft class. All seemed quiet with Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks, James Jones and most of the other veterans available. Only Golden Tate, who had a visit scheduled with the Detroit Lions, seemed to get any action.
  • At the moment, at least, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh appears to be in good standing with the team. He has been given a chance to rebuild quarterback Blaine Gabbert, whom the 49ers acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a sixth-round pick. Harbaugh also got another ex-Stanford player when left tackle Jonathan Martin was acquired from the Miami Dolphins. Both of those moves have Harbaugh's fingerprints all over them.
  • I can hardly wait for Day 2.
Replacing a legend is never easy. The Philadelphia Eagles have learned that the hard way.

It has been five years since Philadelphia let safety Brian Dawkins, one of the most popular players in franchise history, walk in free agency. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie loved Dawkins, but he allowed the man known as Weapon X to get on a plane bound for Denver and a visit with the Broncos. By the time Lurie realized his mistake and called Dawkins and begged him to come back, it was too late. Dawkins signed with Denver, and the Eagles have been looking for an adequate replacement ever since.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Jenkins
Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsThe Eagles are counting on free agent Malcolm Jenkins, 27, to solidify one safety spot. He started 57 games at safety for the Saints.
Malcolm Jenkins is just the latest player Philadelphia hopes can step into Dawkins’ sizeable shadow and provide the leadership, tenacity and production that Dawkins did for all of those years he roamed the Eagles' defensive backfield.

Shortly after free agency began on Tuesday, the Eagles lured the 26-year-old Jenkins away from New Orleans with what ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported was a three-year, $16.25 million contract. Right before that move, the Eagles released Patrick Chung, whom they signed from New England in free agency last year. He was a massive disappointment in 10 starts last season.

Also Tuesday, Philadelphia continued its offseason trend of re-signing its own players, inking punter Donnie Jones to a three-year contract. This offseason the Eagles also re-signed wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, center Jason Kelce, five-time all-pro offensive tackle Jason Peters, and defensive end Cedric Thornton.

Eagles general manager Howie Roseman was expected to take a measured approach to free agency, having learned a hard lesson in 2011 after the lockout when the Eagles signed a slew of big-name free agents. That situation was a nightmare, with some incumbent starters upset about the money the team lavished on free agents like cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins.

Roseman has since gone back to the Eagles formula for success during Andy Reid’s heyday: Build through the draft, supplement through free agency.

But Jenkins fills an obvious need for the defense, which exceeded expectations last season in Bill Davis' first year as defensive coordinator, but needs upgrades throughout the secondary.

The Saints used the 14th pick in the 2009 draft to select Jenkins out of Ohio State. A cornerback in college, Jenkins moved to free safety in 2010 and started 15 games, intercepting two passes (and returning one for a touchdown), forcing one fumble and recovering two others.

Jenkins started 57 games at safety for the Saints, was a two-time captain and had a reputation as a dedicated, hard-working player who lived in the film room. While Jenkins thrived early last season under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and has versatility having played cornerback in college, he also often has been more about potential than production. Jenkins has been inconsistent in coverage and missed some tackles.

That said, for Philadelphia, Jenkins will be an upgrade over Chung. He joins a team that made the playoffs in Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach and enters 2014 with significantly higher expectations.

“We really liked Malcolm’s versatility," Kelly said. "He can line up at either safety spot, can come in and make a tackle and can play man-to-man as well. I had a chance to study him on tape leading up to the playoff game and really liked what I saw. He’s a sharp kid and is ultra-competitive. We are really happy to have him in Philadelphia.”

Is Jenkins Brian Dawkins? No. No one is. But he should be the best option at safety Philadelphia has had since Dawkins was in uniform.

Saints aim high; target S Byrd

March, 11, 2014
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The New Orleans Saints certainly are not letting their salary cap constraints slow them down in free agency. The Saints have lined up a visit with one of the top free agents on the market -- Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Byrd
Byrd, 27, is a three-time Pro Bowl selection with 22 interceptions in his five-year career. Last year, he played under the Bills’ franchise tag. But they elected not to franchise him again this year at a rate of $8.4 million.

It’s possible Byrd could be seeking a long-term deal in that price range. Byrd reportedly is seeking at least $9 million per year, according to ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter James Walker. But that could be on the high end after two other top safeties, Donte Whitner and T.J. Ward, reportedly agreed to deals Tuesday worth $7 million and $5.5 million per year, respectively.

The Saints don’t have a ton of salary cap space to work with. But they’ll be at least $6 million under the cap after cutting ties with running back Darren Sproles (which still has not officially happened yet). And they could carve out millions more by restructuring some of their current contracts if they so choose.

Signing Byrd would be an extreme example of what I wrote about Tuesday morning -- the way the Saints have remained selectively aggressive in free agency in recent years to keep an eye on the future. They have never allowed themselves to be paralyzed by their salary-cap constraints.

Even though they’ve decided to part ways with a number of longtime veterans this year (including longtime starting safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins), they have continued to add new core players through free agency in recent years. That’s why they’ve remained bona fide Super Bowl contenders for so long.

Byrd (5-10, 203 pounds) is known as a ball-hawking free safety with excellent instincts. He battled plantar fasciitis in his foot last season, and there have always been some concerns about his speed since he entered the league as a second-round draft pick in 2009. But they obviously haven't kept him from making an impact on the field.

He also has 356 career tackles, 11 forced fumbles, three sacks and 33 pass defenses.

Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan values safeties in his defense. He would often feature three of them in a rotation at once last year -- led by breakout rookie Kenny Vaccaro.

And now, the Saints need more safety help since Vaccaro is the only safety remaining on the roster. They also expect part-time starter Rafael Bush back after making a one-year qualifying offer to him as a restricted free agent.

The Saints released Harper last month. And they allowed Jenkins to get away as a free agent when he agreed to a three-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday (three years, $16.25 million, according to Schefter).

That move wasn’t surprising since the Saints seemed prepared to let Jenkins get away, especially at that price.

Longtime readers of mine know I’ve always been high on Jenkins' potential in New Orleans. He seemed to flash his big-play potential every year with one or two game-changing plays. And he was a smart, hard-working player that was respected by coaches and teammates alike. He was elected as a defensive captain in each of the past two years.

But Jenkins never consistently lived up to his potential in New Orleans. And the Saints obviously have an eye on upgrading.

Jenkins, by the way, is the sixth member of the Saints' Super Bowl roster that the team has parted ways with this offseason. They now have zero defensive players remaining from that 2009 season and only seven total players left on the roster (including free agent offensive tackle Zach Strief and receiver Robert Meachem).
If the New Orleans Saints don’t re-sign safety Malcolm Jenkins, they will almost certainly need to add depth in free agency. Maybe in the draft as well.

The Saints already released veteran safety Roman Harper last month. Now they have only one safety left on their current roster: second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro. The good news is that Vaccaro looks poised to be one of their top playmakers for years to come after an outstanding rookie season. The Saints also like the potential of part-time starter Rafael Bush, whom they hope to bring back as a restricted free agent and might promote to a greater role.

The Saints need more depth, though, especially if they plan to continue the three-safety rotation that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan favored so much last season.

I doubt they will be in the market for the biggest names in free agency (the Buffalo Bills' Jairus Byrd and the Cleveland BrownsT.J. Ward). Hard-hitting San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner might also be too costly.

But there are still a handful of intriguing options in the next tier or two -- a tier that includes Jenkins, whom the Saints could still consider bringing back if the price is right.

The Saints have already brought in free-agent safety Louis Delmas for a visit after he was released last month by the Detroit Lions. But they don’t appear likely to sign Delmas, according to a league source.

Others in that same range include the Indianapolis Colts' Antoine Bethea, the Miami Dolphins' Chris Clemons and the Carolina Panthers' Mike Mitchell.

Bethea was the best of that bunch in his prime, earning two Pro Bowl invites. He turns 30 before the season starts, but he has remained productive. He hasn’t missed a game since 2007 and has six straight seasons with at least 95 tackles.

ESPN NFL Insiders Matt Williamson and Adam Caplan both suggested Clemons, 28, as a possible fit for the Saints. He is a physical safety who is also decent in coverage.

“I really like Chris Clemons from Miami,” Williamson said. “He’s more of a free safety type, fits that mold of what I think they’d be after. Still young.”

The next tier includes younger veterans with promise, such as the New York Giants’ Stevie Brown, the Chicago Bears’ Major Wright and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Nate Allen. Brown and Wright played great in 2012, but Brown missed last season with a knee injury and Wright struggled along with the rest of Chicago’s defense.

James Ihedigbo is a 30-year-old strong safety who had his first 100-tackle season with the Baltimore Ravens last year after spending most of his career as a special-teams asset.
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.

Free-agency primer: Saints

March, 7, 2014
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.Key free agents: TE Jimmy Graham (franchised), RT Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, S Malcolm Jenkins, OLB Parys Haralson, WR Robert Meachem

Where they stand: The New Orleans Saints have a limited amount of cap space. But they should be able to make room to re-sign one or two of their own starters (in addition to Graham) and add one or two newcomers. The secondary should be a top priority after they released veterans Jabari Greer and Roman Harper last month. The Saints should be in the market for a cornerback who can come in right away and start -- and maybe a safety, too, if they don’t re-sign Jenkins. The offensive line will become a priority if they don’t re-sign Strief or de la Puente -- although they could address that in the draft. They also need to get younger at receiver and linebacker, although those spots also could be addressed in the draft.

What to expect: First and foremost, I ultimately expect the Saints to keep Graham on a long-term deal, although it could be a drawn-out negotiation. Beyond that, I expect a very similar approach to last year, when the Saints lost one key free agent (left tackle Jermon Bushrod), signed one high-priced free agent (cornerback Keenan Lewis) and added some nice depth at value prices (linebacker Victor Butler and tight end Benjamin Watson). My best guess is they keep one of their two starting linemen and add a starting-caliber cornerback (maybe in the range of the San Francisco 49ers' Tarell Brown or the Carolina Panthers' Captain Munnerlyn).
The only player evaluations that matter, as far as the Eagles are concerned, are the ones done by general manager Howie Roseman and his staff.

The media-produced rankings of potential NFL free agents may not tell us much about what the Eagles are thinking. But the wide range of evaluations can provide insight into how wildly divergent different teams' opinions can be.

Let's take a look at the safety position, which figures to be an area the Eagles try to address. Buffalo's Jairus Byrd is generally considered the best safety available, but there are dissenting opinions.

Over at NFL.com, Byrd is listed as the No. 1 free agent available regardless of position. He is the only player tagged as a “difference-maker.” On ESPN Insider, former NFL executive Bill Polian and his team have Byrd as the fourth-ranked safety. Antoine Bethea of the Colts, the only safety with an A grade, is rated the best safety on the market.

Polian has Miami's Chris Clemons as his second-ranked safety, with Cleveland's T.J. Ward third. NFL.com calls Clemons “a league-average starter,” which would still make him an upgrade for the Eagles.

Over at Pro Football Focus, Byrd is rated the top safety and No. 2 free agent overall, behind only Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett. PFF rates Ward as the second best safety (No. 8 overall), while Clemons is No. 30 overall. Bethea, the top safety and a Grade-A player for Polian, is No. 61 overall on PFF's list and No. 51 on the NFL.com list.

PFF places Byrd in the same category as Seattle safety Earl Thomas. Considering the Seahawks just won the Super Bowl with Thomas as a key defensive player, it is likely many teams will make a run at Byrd in hopes of recreating that success.

Ultimately, Roseman and his personnel staff have graded players based on their game tape and how they project players in the Eagles' scheme. Cleveland's Ward is considered a better run defender, more of a strong safety type. Byrd is better at playing deep and at coverage, which was a huge problem area for the Eagles. Their pass defense was dead last in the NFL.

Malcolm Jenkins of the Saints, a converted cornerback, might be a better fit than Ward, from the Eagles' perspective. And that's the bottom line here: The Eagles' perspective is the only one that will matter to them, and they haven't published their opinions on the Internet.

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