John Jenkins believes his time has come.
The former third-round pick has spent two seasons backing up Brodrick Bunkley, stepping into the starting lineup for long stretches when Bunkley went down with an injury.
Now, the big nose tackle feels like he’s capable of taking a big step forward in his third season in New Orleans.
“I’m ready to take off,” Jenkins said. “I had a good year my rookie year, I had a good year my second year, dealing with adversity on my end and then trying to deal with things.”
Jenkins felt like he was capable of making the same jump a year ago.
Then he injured a pectoral muscle lifting weights in the offseason. Forced to miss much of training camp and three games into September, Jenkins found himself trying to get back to full strength on the fly.
“It was frustrating,” Jenkins said. “I’ve never dealt with an injury in my life.”
By the time he returned to the lineup, Jenkins found himself a little hesitant. All that time spent away from the field had left the spectre of re-injury hovering somewhere in the back of his mind, and it affected his play once he returned to the lineup.
“The thing I learned from last year, compared to my rookie year, going into this year, is to seek out the training room,” Jenkins said. “There’s no way to prevent it. Only thing you can do is come in in the best shape possible, take care of your body, and whatever God has for you, that’s what he has for you.”
Near the end of the season, Jenkins finally broke free from the mental barrier set by a summer’s worth of rehabilitation, only to suffer a minor setback and start trying to make up that lost ground all over again.
A quadriceps injury ended Bunkley’s season in the Saints’ Monday Night loss to Baltimore in late November.
For the second straight year, Jenkins found himself thrust into the starting lineup — he started five games as a rookie in 2013, including four to open his rookie year — of a defense that struggled against the run most of the year, finishing 29th in the NFL.
But Jenkins felt like he found a rhythm in that stretch of games.
“I was able to progress at the end of the year, build up my confidence,” Jenkins said. “Now I’m just ready to go out.”
New Orleans needs Jenkins at full strength next season. Despite a flurry of moves that bolstered the defensive side of the ball, the Saints mostly addressed the pass, bringing in players capable of contributing in sub-packages designed to stop the pass like the nickel or dime.
All of those pass-rushing additions could help keep Jenkins healthy. Now that the Saints seem to have several defensive linemen capable of providing an interior rush, Jenkins might have a chance to stay fresh and focus on his primary responsibility. If he can stay healthy, rotate with Bunkley and keep blockers off of the Saints’ linebackers, Jenkins could play a key role in improving a run defense that hemorrhaged more than 180 rushing yards in a game five times last season.
“I love stopping the run,” Jenkins said. “I’ve been doing that. You tell me to push this guy forward and stop the run, I love doing that.”
He should get plenty of chances this fall.