When the New Orleans Saints selected John Jenkins in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft, they knew exactly what they were getting: A larger than life package full of athleticism, strength, stature and run-stuffing ability.
The former University of Georgia nose tackle put together a pair of impressive seasons in Athens after transferring in from Mississippi's Gulf Coast Community College, and cut the figure of an ideal young prospect to plug right into the middle of a 3-4 defense. The Saints were in the midst of a shift to a base 3-4 under newly-appointed defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, and Jenkins ticked the boxes of what the team was looking for as it looked to suit its new scheme with applicable parts.
Playing in the Southeastern Conference gave Jenkins a platform to showcase his abilities on what is arguably College Football's biggest stage. In 2011, his first season as a Bulldog, Jenkins accrued some impressive stats. The 6-3 359 bulldozer tallied 28 total tackles, including 6 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and most impressively, 10 Quarterback pressures. 2012 was more of the same for the Connecticut native, as he upped his tackles to 50, with 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack and an additional 14 QB pressures. Additionally, Jenkins forced a fumble, recovered a pair of fumbles, broke up a bass and recorded an interception over his two seasons at Georgia. He also blocked a field goal against 6th ranked South Carolina as a senior.
Jenkins had put together a strong portfolio in two seasons at Georgia. Having played in a 3-4 base defense under Todd Grantham in Athens, he had an extra air of appeal towards pro teams that employed a similar scheme.
Enter the Saints and Rob Ryan. New Orleans chose Jenkins with the 82nd overall pick, with the hope that he could play a part in the defensive tackle rotation as a rookie. The Saints' defense was historically bad in 2012, allowing an NFL record 7,042 total yards, including a league-worst 147.6 rush yards per game. The team hoped that young Jenkins could join the likes of Brodrick Bunkley and Akiem Hicks in an attempt to shore up what was an absurdly porous rush defense. John Jenkins is poised for a strong 2nd season in the middle of the Saints' defense.
As things played out, Jenkins would be thrust into an important role much earlier than expected. Rather than being brought along slowly and situationally, he found himself firmly in the limelight following an injury to Bunkley in the team's season-opening victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Jenkins would go on to start the Saints' next four contests and shined, recording 8 solo tackles, 6 Quarterback hurries and 2 hits on the passer as New Orleans won all four games en route to a 5-0 start. After Bunkley's return, his snaps were scaled back, but his development continued. In the playoffs, he notched his first career sack, while also racking up a career-high 5 solo stops against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Saints' wildcard win.
Jenkins rapped up his first pro season with a total of 21 tackles over 481 snaps, and established himself as an influential force against opponents' rushing attacks. Just 24 years old, he is an ideal piece for Ryan to continue to construct his defense around. The defense prospered as a whole under Ryan's leadership, allowing the fourth-fewest total yards in 2013, a sharp improvement from 2012, to say the least.
Now, John Jenkins is staring at the next step up the ladder in his young career. Bunkley agreed to a paycut earlier in the offseason, which suggests the former Eagle should return for another season in Black and Gold. However, his roster spot could still be in-flux, as the Saints could face a new battle on the salary cap front if Jimmy Graham's grievance hearing does not play out in their favor. If Graham's side emerges next week victorious, the Saints may have to make moves to get back under the cap, meaning Bunkley could find his roster spot in jeopardy even after agreeing to a reduced salary. Should that be a road the Saints must travel, Jenkins would step right into the featured nose tackle position on the team's starting defense.
Conversely, even if the Saints come out on top in the Graham case and do not have to consider parting ways with a veteran like Bunkley, Jenkins still stands to see an added boost in both playing time and production.
Bunkley will turn 31 in November, and his own production has declined over the last two seasons, with a combined 36 total tackles from 2012-2013 in contrast to the 43 total stops he recorded as a Denver Bronco in 2011. Having graded out as the 41st DT among 69 qualifiers per Pro Football Focus, Bunkley is still a capable force against the run up the middle, but Jenkins is clearly the future of the organization, with fellow young starlets such as Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Hicks surrounding him.
Ideally, Bunkley will remain with the team through at least next season, giving he and Jenkins the chance to remain a more-than-formidable one-two punch against the run. Should things not work out that way, Jenkins will be thrust back into the spotlight. This time, he will know exactly what to expect, and the Saints know they can count on him off the strength of his 2013 experiences.
While the stage is clearly set for Jenkins to make his next giant step, there is one hurdle he must overcome in the next few weeks. He had been missing from the team's first two rounds of organized team activities, and news emerged this week that his undisclosed absence was due to rehabilitation from a minor operation to repair a pectoral injury. It will be crucial for Jenkins to be fully recovered by the time the Saints report to camp in West Virginia on July 24, as he must make sure his conditioning and strength are at optimal levels if he wants to make good on a potential 2nd-year breakout campaign.
2013 proved to be a successful rookie year for John Jenkins, manning a critical position and role on a defense that absolutely needed to take major steps off of a calamitous 2012 season.
“Last year’s experiences helped me a great amount,” said Jenkins earlier this offseason.
“I’m prepared for this season due to last year.”
Prepared, primed and poised for big things from their big man, the New Orleans Saints will welcome any and all improvement from their 2013 third-round pick. Even one small step for Jenkins could well turn out to be one giant leap for the Saints' defense in year two under Rob Ryan. An already markedly-improved unit to match what is still a dominant offense brings nothing but hope and great expectations to Saints fans in the Big Easy.