Injuries usually cripple a team’s depth.
One might have uncovered a star for the Miami Dolphins – and helped solve their long-standing concerns at linebacker.
Jelani Jenkins has gone from a bench-warmer to game-wrecker in just two months, proving yet again that it doesn’t matter how you get your opportunity in the NFL, but what you do with it.
Jenkins has been a revelation since Dannell Ellerbe badly injured his hip in the season opener. His 45 tackles lead the team, and opposing teams can’t help but notice.
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“I was watching film on the [Dolphins] defense, and that was a name that popped up throughout our offensive staff,” said Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, whose team hosts the Dolphins on Sunday. “He’s very, very productive. You have to have great awareness of where he is on the field.”
Added Jacksonville running back Denard Robinson, who prepped at Deerfield Beach: “He can make tackles. He gets off blocks well. He knows how to find the ball.”
And seemingly every week, he makes an impact play.
Ranked by Pro Football Focus as the league’s third-best outside linebacker, Jenkins has been stout against both the run and the pass. Of his 35 solo tackles, 27 have been “stops” – the term the scouting website uses for tackles that constitute an offensive failure.
Jenkins has also forced a fumble, combined on a safety and been in on 1.5 sacks. And yet, he has been even better in coverage.
Quarterbacks have completed just 56 percent of their passes thrown in his direction. Jenkins hasn’t allowed a touchdown all season.
“I don’t know how a lot of people view it,” Jenkins said. “From the outside in, it’s probably just a huge shock, ‘Where did this guy come from?’ But I knew what I was capable of.”
Jenkins added: “Before I even step foot on the field, I’m confident in what I can do.”
That confidence comes from years of being more athletic – and better prepared – than most anyone he goes up against.
A multi-sport star at Good Counsel High School in suburban Washington D.C., Jenkins was one the nation’s most coveted recruits when it came time to pick a college.
He chose Florida, which a month prior won its second national championship in three years. Jenkins had three productive seasons in Gainesville – when he could stay on the field. Injuries shortened his junior year, yet he declared for the NFL Draft early nonetheless.
Scouts weren’t overly impressed. Some raised questions about his size and Jenkins’ strength at the point of attack. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said then: “I think this kid’s going to make a living on special teams.”
Not surprisingly, Jenkins fell to the fourth round, and was the 12th linebacker selected in the 2013 draft.
As a rookie, Jenkins recorded 11 mostly forgettable tackles. As Mayock predicted, Jenkins played predominantly on special teams, although he did see increased snaps from scrimmage as the season went on.
When OTAs rolled around last spring, he was again with the second team, playing behind Ellerbe, who was in Year 2 of a big-money contract. Ellerbe struggled in his first season with the Dolphins, but the team thought a move from the inside to outside linebacker would revive his career.
That revival lasted all of 18 plays. A hip injury ended Ellerbe’s season, and possibly his time in Miami.
As for Jenkins, his future in South Florida looks bright. He not only makes plays, he never comes off the field. In the past two weeks, he has played every defensive snap for the Dolphins.
It’s even fair to say Jenkins has become the team’s most dependable linebacker. Koa Misi is again dealing with an ankle injury – he missed three games earlier in the season with the same issue – and sat out all of practice Thursday. If he can’t go Sunday in Jacksonville, Jason Trusnik will start at middle linebacker.
“We like the way he’s trending as a football player,” coach Joe Philbin said of Jenkins. “He’s earned everything he’s gotten so far. ... He has a chance to be good.”
▪ Though Misi had an apparent setback this week, the injury news was far better for three other Dolphins players Thursday. Branden Albert (elbow), Brandon Gibson (knee) and Samson Satele (hamstring) practiced fully after being limited Wednesday.