Can Saints' Jenkins make the switch to FS?

How easy — or difficult — will it be for Saints cornerback Malcolm Jenkins to transition to free safety down in New Orleans for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams?

Too often we let this pass over as an easy switch, thinking that athletic ability alone of a CB will allow a player such as Jenkins to slide into the middle of the field and start making plays all over the place. Even a player who was talented enough to line up all over the field in college.

But it’s not easy at all, as there will be a learning curve for the former first-round pick despite what he was projected as coming out in the 2009 draft. With Darren Sharper rehabbing a knee injury, Jenkins can take advantage of the multiple reps he will get this summer and in training camp as well as the live action he will see in the preseason games. According to reports over the weekend, Jenkins got to see some action when he ran with the first team on Friday during the Saints minicamp.

Just the beginning of the process.

I have no doubt that Jenkins has the range and skill set to become a very productive player and an everyday starter at the free safety spot once Sharper runs through his current one-year deal for the 2010 season, but let’s look at the adjustments that the former Buckeye from Ohio State will have to make in order for this process to happen — and for Jenkins to make plays in Williams’ scheme.

Angles

When you break it down on defense, football is just a game of angles. You make plays and work within the scheme of the defense if you take the proper angle to the ball carrier, to a receiver and in your run fits. For a corner, these are much different than that of a middle-of-the-field free safety. Jenkins will need work in camp and in the preseason coming from the middle of the field to over the top of vertical routes outside of the numbers and when he fills the “alleys” (between the corner and the core of the formation) in the running game. Instead of playing outside-in on the ball carrier, he will have to learn how to play from inside-out. Sounds simple, but taking the proper angles is the difference between a guy who shows up on film and a guy who looks lost.

Blitzing

If you play safety in Williams’ defense, you will blitz and he will send you multiple times in his various pressure schemes. Contrary to beliefs, blitzing is a practiced skill. Anyone can run through a gap and either get stood up by a running back or clotheslined by a center or guard turning his protection at the last minute. Jenkins will have to learn how to cut the edge of a tackle, set up blockers and use his hands to beat a running back. DBs who blitz are undersized to start with, and the technique to make a play on the quarterback has to be learned and practiced.

Run/Pass reads

The toughest thing for any player moving to the middle of the field is his run/pass reads. From film study, Jenkins will be able to learn the tendencies of a certain offense and use his pre-snap reads to anticipate run or pass. But, that still doesn’t discount what he sees at the snap of the ball. Instead of reading the WR in front of him at the CB position, Jenkins will now have to read what is called the “triangle.” This consists of the center, both guards and through the QB into the backfield to know whether he is seeing play action (high-hat by O-Line) or run (low-hat by O-Line). May sound boring and trivial, but it is the first key to doing anything correctly at FS. You have to trust your eyes.

Tackling

I would have loved to tackle from the corner position in my career because of the ability to use the sideline and the free safety (or inside pursuit in general) as my help. But, when you are playing in the middle of the field, you can’t take a side on a run that breaks from the line of scrimmage. Jenkins will have to square up running backs or wide receivers and find a way — any way — to get them on the ground. Miss a tackle at FS and they will strike up the band for the fight song.

Ball skills

They are different at FS. Instead of playing from the wide receiver’s hip and going through the “pocket” (DBs are taught to go through a receiver’s arms at the point of the catch), Jenkins will make plays on the ball coming downhill on routes such as the deep 15-yard dig, the slant, etc. And, when he is coming over the top of a 7-route (flag route) or 9-route (fade), he will have to take the proper angle so he can make a play on the football.

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