On March 21, 2020, three-time Pro Bowl strong safety Malcolm Jenkins made a surprising return to the New Orleans Saints after leaving the franchise via free agency on March 11, 2014. There was a need on both sides. A need for the Saints to fill their starting spot at strong safety, where Vonn Bell was a free agent, and a need for Malcolm Jenkins to return to the city where he was drafted and won his first of two Super Bowl rings. It seemed improbable that Jenkins would return home after all this time but it happened nonetheless.
So what exactly is this “rare feat” that is being alluded to? It is simply the idea that Jenkins, unlike most players that left the Saints and came back, can be as successful in his second stint with the team, if not better than he was when he left.
Let’s take a look at other Saints draft picks in the Sean Payton era, who just like Malcolm Jenkins, left the Saints via free agency (and in one case, trade):
Roman Harper - Strong Safety
Harper was Sean Payton’s second-ever draft pick as head coach of the Saints, behind USC superstar running back Reggie Bush. He was drafted in the second round of the 2006 draft out of Alabama and immediately became the Saints’ starter at strong safety. Harper was a mainstay in the Saints secondary for eight seasons before being released following the 2013 season. In 2014 Harper signed with the Carolina Panthers where he started at safety for them for two seasons, the second of which saw him serve as the Panthers’ starting safety in Super Bowl 50.
Roman Harper was past his expiration date when he returned to the Saints on June 7, 2016 following his two years in Carolina. He saw career lows in every conceivable metric and he simply was a non-factor on the field for the Saints upon his return. Harper mostly served as a veteran voice in the locker room and depth behind starter Kenny Vaccaro, who took over for Harper after he left in 2014, and rookie Vonn Bell, who today is replaced by Malcolm Jenkins. What a curious carousel at safety in New Orleans.
Harper was certainly not better or even as good in his second stint in New Orleans, but he did fill a need as starter Kenny Vaccaro served a league-mandated suspension during the final month of the regular season. Harper filled in, and although it certainly wasn't pretty, it was decent enough.
Jahri Evans - Offensive Guard
Evans is an interesting case as he was hardly gone at all, after leaving New Orleans to sign with the Seattle Seahawks, he was back with the Saints the season following his release from the team. Evans was Sean Payton’s third-ever draft pick as head coach of the Saints, behind the aforementioned Roman Harper. Selected in the fourth round of the 2006 draft out of the anonymity of Division II Bloomsburg University. From that day forward, Jahri Evans started a career that would make him one of the greatest offensive linemen in Saints franchise history.
The Saints eventually made Evans the highest-paid guard in league history, a contract well earned, but the time to part ways came following the 2015 season. Shortly before the 2016 preseason, Evans signed with Seattle, who were woeful along the offensive line, but he was surprisingly cut less than a month later. The Saints were desperate to fill their need at guard as none of their younger, cheaper options to replace Evans worked out during his time away. He re-signed with the Saints right before Week 1 of the 2016 season, allowing the Saints a sigh of relief.
Jahri Evans was basically the same player he had been in recent seasons for the Saints. He was good, but age was catching up to his game, which should have been no surprise as he was in his eleventh season with the team. Evans was no longer the All-Pro or even Pro Bowl caliber guard he has been from 2009-2014. He was better than anything the Saints had when he was re-signed though. The following season, the Saints went younger at the position, signing free agent Larry Warford to replace Evans who left to play the final season of his career in Green Bay.
Evans wasn't any worse in his “return” to New Orleans, but he was older, and there was a reason the Saints released him in the first place, it was time to move on. The move came a year later, but bringing Evans back in the fold was a shrewd move by a desperate front office. Timing meant everything and the Saints were lucky he was available, even though he clearly wasn't the Evans of old, in fact, nobody was.
Robert Meachem - Wide Receiver
Meachem was the Saints’ first round pick in the 2007 Draft out of Tennessee. The first-team All-American receiver was selected after Calvin Johnson, Ted Ginn, and Dwayne Bowe, but he missed the 2007 season due to knee surgery. His true rookie season would come a year later, but his true breakout season would come in the Super Bowl season of 2009, where Meachem would have his signature moment with the Saints, completing the iconic play affectionately remembered as the “Meacharound”. Nothing Meachem did before or since would compare.
Robert Meachem simply wasn't the same player he was before leaving New Orleans following the 2011 season. His statistics fell off a cliff once he joined the then-San Diego Chargers in 2012. Meachem’s stint in San Diego was so poor that he was cut following his first year of a four-year contract. His game never recovered once returning to New Orleans, playing like a mere shadow of his career seasons from 2009-2011. Meachem’s game hit rock bottom in 2014, which despite getting another look from the Saints in 2016, turned out to be Meachem’s last in the NFL.
Upon his return, Meachem was simply nowhere near the talent he once displayed during his first stint with the Saints. His play got him paid handsomely in San Diego, and his play there shot his confidence when he returned to New Orleans. When folks like Ralph Malbrough say peak Drew Brees could “turn hobos into great receivers”, Robert Meachem epitomizes that sentiment. From 2009-2011, Brees was a major factor in getting Meachem his San Diego contract. Without Brees, Meachem floundered, and after Meachem’s return it was evident Kenny Stills rendered Meachem useless. Robert Meachem’s second stint with the Saints was simply a bust.
Jermon Bushrod - Offensive Guard/Tackle
Bushrod was another small college prospect selected by the Saints in the fourth round of the 2007 Draft out of Towson University. He served as the primary backup tackle to the two-time Pro Bowler and 2006 All-Pro tackle Jammal Brown. It was not until Brown tore his ACL during the Super Bowl season of 2009 that Bushrod found his opportunity to start at tackle. This was an opportunity Bushrod would not relinquish, as he remained the Saints starter through the 2012 season, earning Pro Bowl selections in 2011 and 2012.
Bushrod cashed in on his success with the Saints by leaving New Orleans in free agency and signing a big contract with the Chicago Bears in 2013. He only played three years of his five year contract in Chicago before being released. He then signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2016, moving from tackle to guard in the process.
Jermon Bushrod returned to the Saints via free agency in 2018 where his previous experience at tackle would be valuable as a backup to starter Terron Armstead. Like his experience behind Jammal Brown during his first stint in NOLA, Bushrod found himself starting at left tackle following an injury to Armstead which kept him out for five weeks. While Bushrod was by no means a disaster during his month-plus as a starter, it was a stark reminder why he was a backup at this point in his career. Bushrod did his job well enough but he wasn't the player he was in his 2010-2012 prime, and he certainly would not be in the Saints future plans going forward. 2018 would serve as his final season, as Jermon Bushrod retired in 2019.
Patrick Robinson - Cornerback
Robinson was the Saints’ first round pick in the 2010 Draft out of Florida State, and was the second-consecutive cornerback selected in the first round in consecutive seasons by the Saints (2009, Malcolm Jenkins). Robinson would serve as the nickel corner behind starters Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter during his first two seasons in the league. In 2012, Robinson would move to the outside as a starter alongside Greer after the departure of Porter in free agency.
“P-Rob”, as Robinson has regularly been nicknamed, would only see himself as a starter during the Saints’ historically atrocious 2012 season. In 2013, free agent Keenan Lewis would come in to start opposite Greer, relegating Robinson back to nickel. Following a devastating ACL injury in 2013, Greer would be cut by the Saints, allowing P-Rob to beat out Champ Bailey to start opposite Lewis in 2014. Robinson’s success was severely short-lived as P-Rob would be benched early in the 2014 season, replaced by backup corner Corey White. Thus would end Robinson’s first stint in New Orleans and label him as a clear first-round bust.
Patrick Robinson signed a one-year deal with the then-San Diego Chargers a free agent in 2015, where he spent the season as a nickel corner. He then signed a three-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent in 2016. P-Rob surprisingly found himself back in a starting spot alongside Vontae Davis, but his success was short lived after suffering a season-ending groin injury. After one season in his three-year deal, Robinson was released by Indy.
Then, the anomaly happened. In 2017, Robinson signed a one-year, sub-million dollar contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he would again be named the nickel corner. In Philly, P-Rob had the greatest season of his career and earned a starting spot with the Eagles, helping lead the team to the #1 seed in the NFC that season. His signature career moment came with a 50-yard pick-six early in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings. Robinson helped the Eagles win Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots two weeks later.
Surprisingly, on the start of free agency in 2018, P-Rob returned to New Orleans on a four-year deal, making him the first pickup of free agency that year. Robinson would return to the nickel corner spot where he would serve behind starters Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley, where the Saints were thin at depth. A mixture of recency bias and familiarity could have been major contributors in the decision to bring Robinson back. Either way, the deal was done and one of the Payton-era’s Saints greatest draft busts was back in Black and Gold.
Ominously, in his first month of his first season back as a Saint, P-Rob landed on the Injured Reserve list after breaking his ankle. Robinson returned to action with the Saints in 2019, where he posted career lows in every conceivable metric across the board. P-Rob was easily outshined by the player he was ultimately brought in to replace, P.J. Williams. The regret came full circle for P-Rob and the Saints. A return that had bust written all over it.
And speaking of Saints first round draft busts...
Stephone Anthony - Linebacker
Anthony was the Saints’ first round pick in the 2015 Draft out of Clemson, as the second major piece, next to center Max Unger, from the Seattle Seahawks in the Jimmy Graham trade. Anthony’s rookie season in New Orleans was quite solid and showed promise for the young linebacker going into season two. Anthony’s 2016 however, turned out to be an abject disaster. He was moved from inside linebacker to the outside to accommodate the ill-advised signing of James Laurinaitis in free agency. In his second season, both Anthony’s on-field production and arguably his psyche suffered immeasurably.
The unbelievably drastic drop-off led to Anthony being traded a week into the 2017 season to the Miami Dolphins for a 2018 fifth round pick, thus ending the most perplexing fall from grace for a Saints first round selection in the Sean Payton era. The Saints effectively flipped their first round pick for a fifth rounder and they were relieved to do it. The case of Stephone Anthony, Saints draft bust, was closed. Or was it?
Stephone Anthony left the Dolphins via free agency after two increasingly lackluster seasons in Miami. In the 2019 offseason, he spent less than a month in the Atlanta Falcons camp, followed by “a cup of coffee” with the Jets for the preseason. Unbelievably, Anthony found himself back on a Saints roster early in the 2019 season. Why? Payton and Mickey Loomis only know. Anthony had a tackle in 12 appearances. A tackle. As of today, Stephone Anthony remains on the roster. He was good, then awful in his first stint in New Orleans. Now, in his second stint, he’s invisible.
There are also examples of players that were not drafted by the Saints but after years left the franchise in free agency and later returned for second stints in New Orleans. Those players are:
Jonathan Goodwin - Center
Goodwin was a Pro Bowler at center for the Saints in their Super Bowl season of 2009 and an anchor for their offensive line from 2006-2010. “Goody” as he was nicknamed, would leave New Orleans via free Agency to join the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. Goodwin would then become an anchor for the Niners offensive line, starting every game at center during his three seasons in the Bay Area, including Super Bowl XLVII (ironically played in New Orleans). Goody became a free agent following the 2013 season.
Jonathan Goodwin returned to the Saints on a one-year deal following the departure of starting center Brian de la Puente to free agency and the sinking realization by the Saints that backup center Tim Lelito was not the answer at the position. Goody was just that, good, during the 2014 season, but much like his linemates Evans and Bushrod mentioned above, age and time simply had caught up with him. Goodwin’s decline and the need to protect Drew Brees under center was a catalyst for the Jimmy Graham/Max Unger trade with Seattle (which had ramifications for other players on this list at different times). Goodwin simply wasn't the player in his second stint in New Orleans that he was in his first.
Benjamin Watson - Tight End
Watson signed with the Saints in 2013 to play alongside All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham in Sean Payton’s two tight end sets, as well a serving as Graham’s primary backup. Watson would remain in that role for his first two seasons in New Orleans until Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks before the 2015 season. Starting in 2015, Watson became the starting tight end for the Saints and had the best season of his 12-year career. The only problem for Watson was that despite his great performance and statline, it still paled in comparison to the ridiculous numbers Jimmy Graham put up from 2011-2014. It was simply an unreachable goal for anyone. Following the 2015 season, Watson signed with the Baltimore Ravens as a free agent.
Benjamin Watson’s stint in Baltimore began horribly as a torn Achilles tendon prematurely ended his season before it started. Watson returned to the field for Baltimore in 2017 but not nearly at the heights he achieved during his career high in New Orleans. Once Watson became a free agent once again in 2018, it only made sense that he returned to tight end starved New Orleans. Although Watson was better than the Saints had at tight end since he left the building two years before, he was simply putting up half the numbers he had put up before he left. Unfortunately, to no fault of his own, Watson was unavailable for the Saints when they desperately needed a sure-handed tight end in the NFC Championship. Watson like others listed above, was a familiar face in a spot and time of need, he simply wasn't as good when he returned as he was when he left.
Rafael Bush - Safety
Bush will always be remembered as the guy who was given jersey number 25 in order to move the remaining BUSH #25 jerseys off the market after superstar running back Reggie Bush was traded to Miami the year before. Rafael Bush was a valuable backup safety playing behind Harper, Jenkins, and Jairus Byrd during his first stint in New Orleans. Unfortunately, Bush’s first stint in New Orleans ended unceremoniously as he was placed on the season-ending Injured Reserve list after the first game of the 2015 season.
Rafael Bush signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Lions as a free agent in 2016 where he regained the form he had in his peak with the Saints in 2014. His solid season in Detroit was enough for the Saints to take another look at the veteran safety when he returned to free agency in 2017. The role was familiar for Bush, don the #25 again and back up the starters, but his statline dropped off significantly. It was pretty apparent Rafael Bush simply wasn't the same player in New Orleans that he was at his peak in 2014. It was by no means a disaster, but it simply wasn't going anywhere, and the Saints and Bush parted ways when the 2017 season was over.
Honorable mentions go out to QB Chase Daniel and RB Travaris Cadet who also had brief but unmemorable second-stints in New Orleans.
Lastly, let’s look at the man in question himself:
Malcolm Jenkins - Strong Safety
Jenkins had actually been in Philly longer than he had been in New Orleans by the time he returned to the Saints. In fact, no player mentioned in this piece had been away from New Orleans upon their return as long as Jenkins’ six years. He is even playing a different position than he normally played during his first stint in NOLA, where Jenkins was drafted as a cornerback and ended his tenure here as a free safety.
Malcolm Jenkins was the Saints’ first round pick in the 2009 Draft out of Ohio State, winning the Super Bowl with the Saints in his rookie season. He had a very good career in the Saints secondary alongside Roman Harper but was ultimately and unfairly remembered for their combined failures in the Divisional Playoff loss at San Francisco following the 2011 season. Jenkins earned second-team All-Pro honors once he was moved from corner to free safety in 2010. The Saints felt they needed a ballhawk, centerfielder type free safety as Jenkins just wasn't performing to that level with the Saints. They did not attempt to re-sign Jenkins and instead set their sights on free agent Jairus Byrd.
Malcolm Jenkins proved New Orleans allowing him to walk in free agency to be an unbelievably foolish move. The disastrous Byrd signing still lives in infamy in New Orleans, leaving Saints fans wishing they still had Jenkins to this very day. Jenkins instantly became the player he had the potential to be once he arrived in Philadelphia. Since leaving for Philly, Jenkins became a three-time Pro Bowler and proved himself to be a leader both on and off the field. In 2016, Jenkins moved from free safety to strong safety under new head coach Doug Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. The fit proved to suit his game perfectly. A fit that found itself perfectly in line with what the Saints need today.
Moving away from Gregg Williams and his recklessness, Steve Spagnuolo and his lack of talent, and Rob Ryan and his, well, Rob Ryan-ness, Jenkins thrived. Now, pairing Jenkins with Dennis Allen at the helm and alongside Marcus Williams as the ballhawking center fielder, and being flanked by Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins, the Saints not only will finally have Malcolm Jenkins in a position that fits his skillset, but the talent surrounding him on defense is a definitive upgrade from that which surrounded him when he first left the franchise.
The past tells us that second stints in New Orleans under Sean Payton frankly don't go as well as first stints do. Malcolm Jenkins, of all the players mentioned above, is uniquely positioned to be an outlier as he became a much better and smarter player in Philadelphia than he ever was early in his career in New Orleans. Knowing the history of return performances with the Saints, its easy to have some trepidation with bringing the 11-year veteran back into the fold, but Jenkins has proven himself a pillar of consistency and his physicality, smarts, and leadership should prove to be a difference to a defensive backfield that has lacked in those areas since he walked out that door six years ago.
If I were a betting man I’d let it ride on Malcolm Jenkins being as good as he was in Philly and certainly better than he ever was the first time around in New Orleans. He certainly won't be a long term answer, considering his age and the stage of his career, but for a franchise in a win-now mode, on the cusp of the Super Bowl for the last few years, Malcolm Jenkins can certainly accomplish the feat of being a better Saint the second time around.