[This article is one of eight in B/R contributor Jack Harver's "State of the DTs" series, introduced here.]
Kris Jenkins has conquered the kind of medical and personal problems that claim careers.
Coming into the NFL in 2001, he weighed 315 pounds at the NFL Combine. Back then, the questions were just about his work ethic and discipline.
Jenkins took his lumps as a rookie in Carolina, then blew up in his second and third seasons: 12 sacks, almost 90 tackles, and two trips to the Pro Bowl in two years.
He was well on his way to stardom as an athletic, aggressive tackle when a roller-coaster series of injuries and rehabilitation began.
First was a shoulder injury in Week 4 of the 2004 season that sidelined him for the rest of the year. During the time off, Jenkins developed drinking and weight problems that undermined his rehabilitation.
In his first game back in 2005, Jenkins tore his ACL—a seemingly final setback. Knee injuries are the bane of football players, debilitating and very prone to recurrence.
But Jenkins scratched his way back into the Panthers' 2006 starting lineup, reinventing himself as a space-eating roadblock and earning Pro Bowl honors for a third time.
During the 2007 season, his weight issues cropped up once more; at nearly 400 pounds, Jenkins effectively ate his way out of Carolina. The Jets gave up third- and fifth-round draft picks—a bargain, considering the Panthers' first-round asking price for Jenkins the year before—to acquire him, and signed him to a contract with $250,000 in incentives for dropping weight.
Through the first 11 games in 2008, no one could argue that the Jets hadn't gotten their money's worth.
Jenkins showed up to New York's training camp at 360 pounds and keyed a run defense that was among the league's elite. The Jets allowed under 80 yards per game on the ground as they shot out of the gates to an 8-3 start; no opposing running back managed 100 yards against them, and they held five of their 11 opponents under 50 team rushing yards.
Then, having beaten alcohol, depression, weight issues, and injuries to his knee and shoulder, Jenkins started to feel the effects of a hip injury and a herniated disc in his back.
The back injury had happened back in a Week 3 loss at San Diego and nagged at Jenkins as the season wore on, but the physical wear and tear seemed to take over in December. The Jets allowed 100-yard rushers in three of their final five games, going 1-4 over that stretch and missing the playoffs after their hot start.
New York fired head coach Eric Mangini after that collapse, replacing him with former Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
Ryan has come into the AFC East with guns blazing, signing linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard from his Ravens defense and talking smack with the Jets' division rivals. His history of success developing pass rushers like Terrell Suggs and Adalius Thomas has Jets fans optimistic about the prospects for former first-round pick Vernon Gholston and the defense as a whole.
But Jenkins is the unquestioned focal point of the defense. The Jets acquired free agent lineman Marques Douglas, who played for Ryan in Baltimore, but traded end Kenyon Coleman to Cleveland. New York's ends weren't able to pick up the slack in Jenkins' absence last season, and the Jets shouldn't expect them to this year, either.
In his 2006 Pro Bowl season, Jenkins showed that he is capable of coming back from worse injuries to play at a high level. For their new coach to be able to tinker with his new defense—and he is tinkering, if Jenkins' practice reps at defensive end are any indication—the Jets will need their nose tackle to start 2009 where he left off in Week 12 of 2008.
Jenkins' play through those first eleven games earned him his first All-Pro nod since swelling above 350 pounds. That "second coming" form will be crucial to New York's defense going forward.