Rich Hofmann: Eagles' Watkins definitely improved

Watkins
Watkins
Posted: September 07, 2012

IF YOU ASK Eagles right guard Danny Watkins if he is a student of the game, he blurts out a quick answer: "No." The reason is that he considers that title - "student of the game" - to be a final accomplishment, not a process. Watkins says that center Jason Kelce is a student of the game, and he doesn't want to put himself in the same category as Kelce because Kelce recognizes more and understands more than he does. He seems not to want to diminish that compliment by pretending that he has arrived.

Because he hasn't. In its only extended run this summer, the Eagles' offensive line was uneven against the Patriots and Watkins was as uneven as anyone. At the same time, Watkins says, "I'm trying to learn. I think I can make adjustments on the fly now. I'm working toward it - how about that?"

And better than last year?

"Yes," he said, the answer blurted out as quickly as the previous "no."

"Without a doubt," he said.

With that, and with the Eagles' season opener only days away, we begin. By this time last season, the Eagles already had exiled Watkins to the bench because he just wasn't ready. We all know the story - first-round pick out of Baylor at the age of 26, a firefighter with only about 4 years of football background, just too raw. His athletic ability could not cover for his inexperience.

He was back after a few weeks, though, and Watkins ended up starting 12 games at right guard. As a unit, the offensive line played well overall and better as the season progressed. Watkins was part of that. At the same time, no one involved has pretended that there were not issues. Offensive-line coach Howard Mudd had the great quote from earlier in the summer, when he described how Watkins would sometimes be gripped by uncertainty at what he was seeing, descending into the "valley of darkness."

Watkins hopes those days are gone. He laughs at how fast the first year went, and how the "rookie wall" is a real thing you have to fight through at the end. He looks back on the whole thing with an interesting perspective, and admits that being the first-round draft choice adds something to a rookie player's burden.

"It's a lot to bear," he said. "People recognize you for that - not your position. I went to a kids football thing [Tuesday] night up in Quakertown. A buddy of mine coaches football up there and I went to talk to the kids. You're looking at them and they have so much promise and you're telling them about football and this kid asks me, 'What position do you play? I know you were the No. 1 guy, but I don't know what your position is.' "

The No. 1 guy. Teams cannot afford to miss on the No. 1 guy - not very often, anyway, and not if the people doing the selecting expect to remain employed. Watkins needs to be better this season - which puts him in the same vessel as about half of the players on a team that got off to a 1-4 start and finished 8-8 in 2011.

"Last year, he was an extremely raw player," said Kelce, who was drafted in the sixth round last year out of Cincinnati. "The knowledge that he has, the knowledge that I had, it really wasn't comparable coming out of college. Now, having a full offseason under his belt, finally learning how to think about things in different ways than he was used to, he can now watch film on his own and tell what's going on: 'I screwed up there, I should be doing this.' That's huge.

"Really, if you're at the level where you should be mentally, you should know immediately after a play, 'Ah, I just screwed that up.' Last year, he wasn't at that level."

This year, the fan base will be fixated on new left tackle King Dunlap, who is replacing the injured Jason Peters. Watkins will benefit from that, and from a guard's natural anonymity, hidden as he often is in the middle of the mayhem. But the pieces are so co-dependent that problems along an offensive line tend to ripple like a pond into which a stone has been dropped. Problems on the right side will not stay secret for long.

"I think it's pretty crucial that you're able to adapt on the fly and make adjustments and keep the chemistry with your O-linemates," Watkins said, and he said again that he believes he is better equipped to handle it this season. Sunday in Cleveland is when we begin to find out for real. In the locker room before the game, there will be no rituals.

"I think I'm the only damn guy in the locker room that doesn't listen to music," Watkins said. "Everyone's jamming out to something. Guys talk about the music they listen to and I'm just kind of standing there, dum-di-dum, having a conversation with myself."

Soon enough, we will see how he communicates in Year 2, in the middle of the mayhem.


Contact Rich Hofmann at hofmanr@phillynew.com. Follow him on Twitter @theidlerich. Read his blog at philly.com/TheIdleRich, or for recent columns go to philly.com/RichHofmann.

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