Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Updated: December 24, 3:42 PM ET
Jenkins maturing into lockdown corner
By Tim MacMahon
IRVING, Texas -- Mike Jenkins arrived at Valley Ranch as a first-round pick with almost everything a cornerback needed to star in the NFL: speed, strength, smarts, quickness, competitiveness, long arms and a lot of confidence.
But Jenkins was missing a few things: maturity, work ethic and opportunity.
As he nears the end of the second season, the 5-foot-10, 198-pound Jenkins is pretty close to the complete package. He's established himself as the Dallas Cowboys' best cornerback and accomplished his offseason goal of having his name come up in Pro Bowl conversation.
Jenkins raised some eyebrows by proclaiming his Pro Bowl goal on his personal blog before he had even claimed a starting job. A lot of people perceived that as cockiness. Jenkins sees it as a healthy amount of swagger.
"My mom told me I have a big head because I always think big," said Jenkins, who is tied for third among NFC cornerbacks with five interceptions. "I think in order for you to be successful, you have to think big."
As a rookie, Jenkins learned the importance of focusing on the small stuff, too.
The biggest knock on Jenkins coming out of South Florida was that he had poor practice habits. He admits that he often coasted in practices at college. He could get away with that then. He learned the hard way that wasn't the case in the NFL.
"He had to develop the idea that he had to work on his skills all the time in order to get better," secondary coach Dave Campo said. "Rookies, it takes them a little while to understand that."
Jenkins also had to fight through the frustration of having an inconsistent role, which affected his focus. His playing time came when Pacman Jones, who for all his controversy and credentials ended up being nothing but a progress stopper for the Cowboys, was suspended or injured. When Jenkins finally got to play significant snaps, he quickly figured out that he didn't prepare well enough.
The Cowboys made it clear to Jenkins during the offseason that they were counting on him. They traded veteran cornerback Anthony Henry, a fellow South Florida alum who mentored Jenkins, to the Detroit Lions for Jon Kitna. They released Jones.
But they didn't hand Jenkins the starting job opposite Newman. They made him win it over fellow second-year cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who had excelled as the slot man in the nickel and dime packages as a rookie.
Such a challenge was just what Jenkins needed. The opportunity to start pushed him to study and work out harder during the offseason. The cornerback competition, which was interrupted when Jenkins suffered a high ankle sprain during training camp, continued until the third week of the regular season.
"Orlando was pushing me," Jenkins said. "He was pushing me. There was some days that I was like, 'Man, this guy is bringing it to the table.' I knew I had to go out every day and not slip."
Those practice habits became permanent. Campo and head coach Wade Phillips rave about Jenkins' practice attitude and effort, which have paid off on game days.
Jenkins has quickly developed into a complete cornerback. He has excellent ball skills, as evidenced by his five picks, half the team's total. He's a solid hitter and tackler, something he was determined to prove after his attention-grabbing olé in last season's loss to the New York Giants. And he's an outstanding bump-and-run corner: He can use his strength and long arms to jam receivers, and his speed and quickness to recover when he does get beat off the line of scrimmage.
"Sometimes I think we can say, 'Hey, you've got this guy with no help,'" Phillips said. "'No middle safety, no nothing, you've got him.'
"He's getting to that point. The free safety can help somebody else and not even worry about him. He's not perfect, but he's getting better and better."
Jenkins seems to be at his best when the pressure is highest. Arguably his two best performances have been in prime-time road victories over the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints. He helped shut down explosive receiving corps and had key interceptions in both games.
That's no coincidence, according to Jenkins. He thrives on those types of games. Last week, he referred to the Cowboys' trip to the Superdome as an "opportunity game," because he knew he could get people's attention throughout the country with a stellar performance against the then-undefeated Saints. Then he backed up his words.
Jenkins had the utmost respect for the Saints' top-ranked offense. But he believes in himself. That's the sort of swagger he has.
"I'm not scared to lose," Jenkins said. "I'm not scared to get caught on. I'm not scared to get beat deep. I'm not scared of nothing like that. I just go out ready to challenge anybody.
"I like the challenge. I want to play against the best."
He's earned that opportunity.
Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.