Malcolm Jenkins wants to be on field

Considering the Saints' quality starters and depth at cornerback, moving Malcolm Jenkins to safety was the quickest way to get the 2009 first-round pick into the starting lineup. Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

METAIRIE, La. -- As the New Orleans Saints talk about Malcolm Jenkins' move to free safety, they repeatedly talk about his eyes.

“He just needs time to learn to believe in his eyes and learn to trust his eyes when it’s time to make a break," starting strong safety Roman Harper said.

Funny, but Jenkins’ eyes already appear to be functioning perfectly. That’s why he’s at safety after spending his rookie season at cornerback. Jenkins and the Saints looked around and the numbers made it easy to see that his future is at safety.

Let’s do the math. The Saints have Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, a pair of starting cornerbacks who turned out to be better than anyone imagined at the start of last season. They’re not coming out of the starting lineup. The Saints also have reserve backup Randall Gay, who probably could start for some teams, and they used this year’s first-round draft pick on cornerback Patrick Robinson.

That’s two very good starters and two quality backups. If Jenkins had stayed at cornerback, he’d probably be somewhere in the middle of the depth chart. That’s not what anybody wants from a player who was New Orleans’ first-round draft pick a year ago.

Soon after the Super Bowl, the Saints and Jenkins looked around and there was only one real choice.

“To be totally honest, it’s a lot easier to get on the field at safety right now," Jenkins said.

The Saints want Jenkins on the field and in the starting lineup right now. That’s where he was as the team opened a three-day minicamp this past weekend. Jenkins missed the last couple practices after bumping knees with a teammate, but the team said the injury is nothing serious. Jenkins is expected to return soon as the team continues its OTAs (organized team activities).

“Right now, it seems like it’s a perfect move," Jenkins said. “I’m just happy to be on the field."

The Saints keep talking about their cornerback depth when explaining Jenkins’ move and there is plenty of truth to that. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Jenkins isn’t being moved just because of an overload of talent at cornerback.

He’s being moved because of the situation at safety. As much as New Orleans fans worship free safety Darren Sharper, and they should after what he did last year, the 34-year-old might be closer to the end of the road than the public realizes.

After a blazing start last year, Sharper got banged up and tailed off in the second half of last season. He had microfracture knee surgery in the offseason and the Saints aren’t putting any public timetable on his return. Lots of players younger than Sharper have not successfully returned from microfracture surgery and there are no guarantees.

Sharper may be destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and maybe he can make a comeback from the surgery and have another year like last season. But the Saints clearly can’t count on that and that’s why they made the decision months ago to move Jenkins to safety.

They let Sharper hang out there in free agency for several months and re-signed him only after he didn’t get much interest anywhere else. And that came only after Sharper agreed to return at a bargain-basement salary.

Maybe Sharper surprises people and comes back as good as ever. But the Saints can’t count on that.

They drafted Jenkins as a cornerback, but they’ve said all along he could move to safety at some point. It looks like that point is now.

“He’s doing well," coach Sean Payton said. “He’s an intelligent player, so a position move for someone like him who’s a thinker on the field can become mentally easier and I think he’s handling it, handling the snaps that he’s getting, he’s getting a lot of them right now. The one thing that we know is that he’s a pretty good football player. He’s working hard and handling the adjustment"

It’s really the only logical adjustment for Jenkins' career right now. With his knee wrapped by a brace, Sharper has been out on the practice field, acting like an extra coach. He frequently is seen talking to Jenkins between plays and that advice is welcome.

“He’s kind of grooming me," Jenkins said. “He’s been very open and helpful with anything I ask. The biggest thing he has taught me is to not be afraid to make a play. A lot of things he does, the coaches kind of grind their teeth at it because you never know what he’s going to do. But he makes a lot of plays and he’s always telling me not to be afraid to pull the trigger."

Maybe this situation is exactly what the Saints need to make a good defense even better. Maybe they’ll go with Jenkins as their starter and Sharper as an insurance policy/tutor. In a best-case scenario, having Jenkins on the field could give the Saints something like Sharper’s mind in a much younger and healthier body.

“In this league, I think I could be a good corner," Jenkins said. “But I think I have the potential to be great at safety."

If he turns out to be anywhere near as great as Sharper, the Saints might have found their free safety for the next decade or so.