Right at the end of last season and into the playoffs, the Chargers made a switch to their defense. Somewhat out of necessity, they played three safeties for the majority of a game. There was especially something interesting to me about that.
In the last regular season game against the Broncos, LA inserted Rayshawn Jenkins — who had been a backup safety up until that point — into the starting lineup. But he was playing close to the line of scrimmage most of the game in the nickel/dime linebacker role he had been playing on passing downs much of the year. However, while he also started in both playoff games, the Chargers played him as the deep, single-high free safety most of those two games. Then they moved their regular starting free safety, Jahleel Addae, up close to the line of scrimmage and had him play the linebacker role instead.
I don’t really know why the Chargers made that switch. It didn’t appear Jenkins was having any problem in that linebacker role, after all. And Addae was solid in the deep middle most of the season. The switch did give the Chargers the opportunity to see Jenkins play as more of a true free safety in two games, though, and his performance certainly didn’t give any indication he would have any problems in that role full-time.
Well, there is a good chance we are about to see how Jenkins will handle that, now that Addae has gone on to play for the Houston Texans after being a starter for most of his six-year career with the Chargers.
That leaves the door wide open for Jenkins to take over the free safety spot full-time.
Because Jenkins normally played close to the line of scrimmage, picturing him playing more of a centerfielder role did not come easily. But when I sat down and thought about it, the fact Jenkins has already shown he can do both is actually a big plus.
It is no secret the Chargers strong safety Derwin James likes to play close to the line as well. But when James is healthy, I don’t think they want to be so predictable that he is always the safety playing near the box, while the free safety is always back deep. Sooner or later you have to switch that up to keep opposing offenses on their toes, and with a guy like Jenkins at free safety, there is no question he will be fine playing in the box from time to time when James is back deep.
Jenkins has good size on him at 6’1 and over 200 pounds (he is listed at 220, but has reportedly dropped weight this offseason), and the guy isn’t scared to put his hat on somebody. While Jenkins will go for the big hit at times, he is also a pretty sure tackler.
He knows when to break down in the open field, and when to open up the can of whup ass.
He looked pretty good sifting through traffic when he played as an inside linebacker from time to time, and he wasn’t afraid to take on offensive linemen, either.
At the same time, playing close to the line of scrimmage meant Jenkins was matched up a lot with slot receivers and tight ends on passing downs, and he acquitted himself quite well in coverage, too. He didn’t have any passes broken up, nor interceptions last season, but if you watch the film he was pretty good mirroring the guys he covered in man to man. He also looked comfortable with his zone drops when he played in the box.
As a free safety, he likely won’t be called upon to get up and cover at the line of scrimmage like that a lot anymore, but it is nice to know he could do a good job of it.
For those two playoff games, I was kind of expecting Jenkins to get overanxious and get sucked in on play-action fakes because he was so used to being involved against the run. However, to his credit, Jenkins played pretty disciplined in both games. When he was supposed to stay back deep, that is pretty much what he did. And when he needed to come up in run support, he did.
That, to me, was a good sign Jenkins will fit in just fine as the free safety spot.
I do have to point out that Jenkins is going to have to fight his ass off to win that job.
It isn’t just going to be handed to him after the Chargers spent a second-round pick on safety Nasir Adderley this spring. Jaylen Watkins, who came over from the Eagles, will likely be vying for the starting position as well.
Jenkins, the Chargers’ 2017 fourth-round pick, is going to have to fight and claw every day if he wants to start this year, and he still will have to look over his shoulder all season for that matter.
I don’t see that as a bad thing, really. I think the more competition there is, the more guys step their game up. Iron sharpens iron, and Jenkins should be all the more better for it at the end of the day.
From what I’ve seen, Jenkins definitely has the physical tools and the technique to be a big-time free safety for the Chargers. Even if he doesn’t start, I expect the Chargers are not done using that three-safety personnel so Jenkins is likely to play a lot this season, regardless. Now, with the unfortunate news that James’ foot surgery will knock him out of action until at least the middle of the season, Jenkins’ versatility will be relied on even more heavily to start the season.
James’ injury is unfortunate, but with him on the mend to start the season, I think it’s even more of a no-brainer that Jenkins will far outpace the 23 tackles and a 0.5 sack that he posted last season. On top of that, I believe Jenkins will start to get his hands on a lot more balls this year and those pass breakup and interception numbers should explode. Seeing as how he has never had an interception and only has one pass breakup for his career so far, those numbers can only go up, anyway.
The more he plays, the more Jenkins should become a fixture for that Chargers defense for this season and for seasons to come.
Confidence level: High