Watkins a choice of substance over style

April, 29, 2011
4/29/11
11:33
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When it comes to the NFL draft, few positions inspire less excitement than guards. They usually don’t have the jaw-dropping highlights television producers love to run, and they often don’t possess the freakish physical traits of offensive tackles. But just ask any pro coach how vital this position has become in a league where dominant defensive tackles pervade. The teams that stabilize their interiors have far fewer headaches come fall.

[+] EnlargeDanny Watkins
Brett Davis/US PresswireOffensive lineman Danny Watkins fills a huge need for the Eagles.
This reality obviously was on the mind of Eagles head coach Andy Reid when he picked Baylor guard/offensive tackle Danny Watkins with the 23rd overall selection in the draft. Philadelphia needed all kinds of help along the offensive line, with right guard ranking right at the top. Watkins -- a 26-year-old Canadian who didn’t even pick up the game until he was 22 -- had the skill set that fit exactly what Reid wanted. Sure, it’s a marriage that won’t generate a spike in preseason buzz. But that’s what players like Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are supposed to bring to the table.

The Eagles needed more muscle, plain and simple. In nabbing Watkins, they found a player so attractive that even his advanced age didn’t deter Reid. “(Watkins’) clock started a little later but he took to (football) right away and was so productive,” Reid told local media after making the selection. “He’s a heck of a player in the run and pass game. I can’t tell you how happy we are to have him in our program.”

The beauty of Watkins is that he brings versatility to an offensive line that sorely needs it. He has played all five line positions at some point, and he has the scrappiness that Reid adores in his linemen. Reid said at this stage, Watkins -- 6-foot-4, 310 pounds -- projects as a better fit at guard. Regardless of where the rookie ends up, he’s already seen as player who should be starting by Day 1.

That possibility, by the way, has as much to do with Philadelphia’s glaring flaws as it does Watkins’ potential. It’s no secret that Vick’s scrambling ability saved the Eagles' offensive line from even more embarrassment than what resulted from the 50 sacks allowed last season. (The worst total in Reid’s 12 years as head coach). There’s also no way Vick can continue running for his life game in and game out without paying a hefty price. Even the most nimble of quarterbacks slows down eventually.

The best thing about Watkins is that he clearly is a fast learner. He grew up playing hockey in Kelowna, British Columbia, and only discovered football after a friend encouraged him to try out for the team at Butte Junior College in Chico, Calif. Before that point, Watkins had his sights set on earning a degree in fire sciences and returning to Canada to work as a firefighter. After it, he turned enough heads that Baylor gave him a full scholarship and made him the successor to former Bears left tackle Jason Smith, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft.

Watkins started all 25 games he played in at Baylor. He impressed when facing Texas A&M star defensive end Von Miller last season, a player who was selected second overall by Denver in this draft. The question, of course, is whether Watkins can continue his rapid maturation at the next level. It’s one thing to enjoy the game when it comes easily to you in college. It’s an entirely different matter when there are higher expectations and more pressure resulting from that fat NFL paycheck.

The early indication is that Watkins is hard-wired to deal with that transition. If you’re preparing to dash into burning buildings for a living, it’s a safe bet that unhappy Eagles fans won’t raise your blood pressure. Being an older player also could help his cause. Whatever concerns people might have about how long he can play when he starts a career at 26 will be offset by the fact that he’ll be more mature than most rookies when he enters camp later this year.

That has to be what the Eagles are hoping. They had a big need to fill, and they’re grateful that a talented prospect was waiting for them. That means their head coach is happy today and their starting quarterback is probably even happier. In time, Watkins might make plenty of others feel the same way about a pick that was vital to the Eagles’ future.
Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.

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