METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton has made a number of glowing comments about Malcolm Jenkins over the years that made it clear just how much he missed his former safety after the New Orleans Saints let him go in 2014.
Like when the coach said in 2018, “That was probably as big a personnel mistake as we’ve made in my 13 years here." And when he said, "Should have never let him leave to begin with," when he confirmed that Jenkins was coming back last week.
But one comment that was especially telling came in 2018, when NBC Sports’ Peter King got an inside look at the Saints devising game plans before they faced Jenkins and the Philadelphia Eagles.
When Payton explained the thinking behind a unique formation the Saints had drawn up, he told King, "Part of it, really, is thinking of something that they haven’t seen. ... You want eight heads to turn to Malcolm Jenkins and be like, 'What do we do?'"
Payton is one of the NFL’s all-time best offensive strategists, and that’s how he views Jenkins. As a worthy chess opponent.
It’s one of many intangible qualities that Jenkins will bring back to the Saints -- and one that helps explain why the Saints were willing to part with their promising 25-year-old safety Vonn Bell in free agency while signing Jenkins instead.
To some, this might look like the Saints are making the same mistake that they made in 2014 when they let Jenkins go and tried to "upgrade" to free-agent safety Jairus Byrd. That move turned out to be a flop -- in part because Byrd suffered a major knee injury just four games into that first season. But in hindsight, the Saints also gave up too early on Jenkins, who never quite delivered on his full potential during his five years in New Orleans before he hit his stride in Philadelphia. He made three Pro Bowls in six seasons with the Eagles and helped them win a Super Bowl.
The difference this time, however, is that the Saints know firsthand how well Jenkins, 32, will fit into their defense and their locker room.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen was Jenkins’ position coach when the Saints drafted him in the first round out of Ohio State in 2009. Allen knows multiple ways he can use the versatile 6-foot, 204-pounder, who is listed as a “free safety” but spends a lot of time inside in nickel and dime formations.
Nobody has accused that group of lacking leadership or accountability. But they have certainly battled their share of inconsistency and occasional breakdowns in coverage. A dose of veteran expertise can’t hurt.
Jenkins was twice elected as a defensive captain by teammates during his first stint in New Orleans. He filled the same role in Philadelphia.
He was the one breaking down his teammates in the Eagles' pregame huddle with a passionate speech before they beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. He also broke down the team after games – as you can see in this clip from his speech after Philadelphia lost quarterback Carson Wentz to a torn ACL during that Super Bowl run.
Former Saints safety Roman Harper compared Jenkins to another fiery Saints leader, linebacker Demario Davis.
“[Jenkins] is not one of those guys that’s just gonna talk the talk. He likes to walk the walk as well,” Harper said. “A great example of that is he’s always gonna be at the front of the line. ... He’s gonna be the first person to give an example to do something. When it’s one-on-ones, he’s gonna be right there trying to go against Michael Thomas or the best receiver. That’s just who he is. He loves to compete.
“And I think his competitiveness is infectious. If you see somebody going that hard, it only makes you want to go hard as well."
Harper said Jenkins will also bring “more of a vocal aspect when they’re out there playing.”
“I think that can really help complete that secondary and really bring some things that they probably have not always had,” Harper said. “Maybe even help bring some confidence to Marcus Williams and adding that to his game, because he’ll be playing alongside him and just confirming [what he sees]. 'All right, we know you’re smart Marcus, but let me take some of the thinking off of you with some of the old veteran presence I have.'"
Former Saints cornerback Jabari Greer agreed, saying they are “getting a player that can help their secondary avoid costly mistakes in crucial situations.”
“On the field and in the meeting room, Malcolm seemed to be extremely focused. The results that were seen on Sunday were often an occurrence in practice with him," said Greer, who pointed to one of the most memorable plays of Jenkins’ career -- when he chased Dallas Cowboys receiver Roy Williams all the way down the field to force a fumble inside the 10-yard line late in the fourth quarter and spark a come-from-behind win in 2010.
“He plays with the desperation to win,” Greer said.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees paid Jenkins a tremendous compliment two years ago when he said, “Malcolm is the Michael Thomas of competitors on the defensive side of the ball.”
“Like, the ultimate competitor,” Brees said for a story ESPN Eagles reporter Tim McManus wrote on their mutual respect. “Very prideful. Just one of those guys, like the quarterback of the defense, wants to be in for every snap. Every play is make or break. Every play could be the championship. So I always respected that about him.
"And I respected the fact that he comes in as a first-round pick, he’s playing corner, then playing a lot of slot, then at some point transitions to safety. And just embraces that. And now I’d say ... he’s one of the most dynamic, one of the best ‘hybrid’ guys. I mean he plays at linebacker level the majority of the time. He’s a great pressure player. He can cover slot receivers, he can cover tight ends, he covers running backs. He can play the middle of the field. He can play everywhere. He’s like your ‘do-it-all defensive player.’”
The decision to reunite was just as easy for Jenkins as it was for the Saints. He spent little time on the open market after the Eagles decided not to pick up his 2020 contract option. He said if he wasn’t going to return to Philadelphia, the Saints were his first choice.
“For me, it wasn’t really about the highest bidder or anything like that,” said Jenkins, who said it feels like he is “coming back home” and that his second daughter’s middle name is Nola. “At this point in my career, I want to be near my family, I want to be on a team that can win, and I want to be happy.
“And obviously, with the success that the team has had in the last few years, I think being able to come back and just help push the team that one more step that I think it needs to be back in that Super Bowl again.”