Malcolm Jenkins emerging as elite safety

Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins returns an interception for a touchdown against the Rams on Sunday. Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

Ever since he intercepted a pass and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown Sunday against St. Louis, New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins has been drawing even more comparisons to Darren Sharper.

That's pretty logical, because the play looked almost like a copy of the one Sharper made against the New York Jets early last season. Both plays came near the same end zone, went down the same sideline and resulted in touchdowns.

But let's not act like this is a case of Jenkins coming out of nowhere and making Sharper pretty much a non-factor. What you are seeing is Jenkins emerging as one of the best, or at least hottest, safeties in the league.

This was all part of a master plan by the Saints. Although fans didn't want to believe it for most of the offseason, the decision for Jenkins to take Sharper's place was made almost an entire calendar year ago. Sharper is a charismatic veteran beloved by fans and a player who made very big plays during last season's Super Bowl run.

But it also was becoming very obvious during that run that Sharper's time as an elite player was running out quickly. By the time the Saints won the Super Bowl, there was a pretty strong hunch within the coaching staff and management that Sharper no longer was the best safety on the roster.

In their eyes, the best safety on the roster was Jenkins, who played cornerback a year ago. That's why as soon as he showed up to start working out after the Super Bowl celebrations, the Saints sat Jenkins down and told him he was moving to free safety. It turns out that foresight was spot on.

“I don’t know if Malcolm is the second coming of Darren Sharper, but he’s going to be the first coming of Malcolm Jenkins,’’ Sharper told the New Orleans media this week.

Jenkins has become a play-making safety and a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate. When the Saints play the Ravens on Sunday, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed will be the biggest-name defensive players on the field. But they might not be, at this moment, the best defensive players on the field.

That title might belong to Jenkins, who over the past month or so has played as well as any defensive player in the league. Jenkins' two interceptions against the Rams earned him a second NFC Defensive Player of the Week Award. He also won the award in Week 12, after stripping Dallas' Roy E. Williams of the ball, recovering the fumble and helping the Saints to a victory on Thanksgiving. It's rare for anyone to get an honor twice in a few weeks. The fact that Jenkins did is a sign that this guy can't be stopped right now.

"The ball seems to find him,'' New Orleans coach Sean Payton said Sunday.

There is something to be said for instincts or having a nose for the ball. Those are the traits of great safeties, but Payton was quick to add that there are a lot of other reasons why Jenkins has become a magnet for the football.

“He's tough,'' Payton said. "He’s intelligent. He’s a guy who has good instincts. That mental makeup, along with his skill set, serves him well.''

The physical skills were always there. Everybody knew that when Jenkins was a first-round pick out of Ohio State last year. But what you're seeing now is intelligence catching up to, maybe even surpassing, physical ability.

From the moment he was told he was moving to safety, Jenkins became a regular in the film room. He got tips from Sharper, who eventually re-signed with the Saints after testing free agency. But teammates and coaches will tell you Jenkins is the guy who is making it all happen because he has worked so hard to prepare.

"I don't think it's anything special," Jenkins said. "I think (defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams puts us in position to make plays -- and, at the end of the day, talk about the mentality of making plays.''

Jenkins has turned Sharper, a possible Hall of Famer, into a role player. Although the Saints worked Jenkins exclusively at safety in the offseason, they were forced to return him to cornerback briefly when starters Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter and nickel back Randall Gay suffered injuries. When Sharper came off the physically unable to perform list at midseason, Jenkins remained the starter at free safety. He occasionally has played nickel corner when Sharper gets on the field.

Some players might have gotten confused by all the shuffling. Not Jenkins. He has thrived and is talked about as a perennial Pro Bowler by Sharper.

“There’s something about a guy who can play both positions, corner and safety in the game, and make plays at both positions,’’ Sharper said. “I can say he’s going to be a multi-Pro Bowler because that’s what a Pro Bowler does: He makes plays. You want to see the safety make those plays. That’s what a safety is supposed to do, and he’s taking off and running with it.''