Eagles' Danny Watkins may just need a fresh start

"A fresh start would be great," said guard Danny Watkins, the Eagles' first-round pick in 2011. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
"A fresh start would be great," said guard Danny Watkins, the Eagles' first-round pick in 2011. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: December 24, 2012

Danny Watkins has played fewer than two NFL seasons, and yet, because of his fall from grace this year and his advanced age, he has been deemed by many to be a bust.

If the lesson of Brandon Graham has taught anything it's that two seasons - one interrupted by injury - sometimes cannot be enough time to draw conclusions on draft picks. Even first-rounders.

Perhaps Watkins won't ever live up to being selected 23d overall in the 2011 draft. If the right guard was to end his career today, with 18 starts of little note, then the Eagles' decision to take the then-26-year-old former firefighter with only four years of football under his utility belt could be labeled a failure.

And quite frankly, the evidence after 18 starts doesn't exactly bode well for the he-needs-more-time theory.

But what if Watkins just needed a new coach, teaching a new scheme, to become a mainstay on the offensive line for the next several years?

"A fresh start would be great," Watkins said last week. "Getting a more traditional blocking scheme, something new, would definitely benefit me a little bit."

Whether Andy Reid is back or not - and it's likely to be the latter - his offensive line coach has already announced that this will be his last season. Howard Mudd will retire two years after Reid lured the former Colts assistant out of his first retirement.

When Mudd was hired in January 2011, he brought along a unique blocking scheme that emphasized aggression and catered to athletic lineman. Watkins was drafted three months later and was described by the team as a player who would thrive in Mudd's system.

Like many of the other linemen, Watkins, who used the vertical-step technique at Baylor, struggled to adapt to Mudd's new methods. Some never picked it up and were eventually discarded. Some did and became better blockers, like left tackle Jason Peters.

The lockout did not help Watkins, however, and he lost his starting spot before the season. He eventually won it back and appeared to be on the upswing by the end of last year, but he never seemed to emerge from the "Valley of Darkness," as Mudd once referred to Watkins' self-doubting, in the first six games of this season.

"It was a much different offensive blocking system than what he had in college," center Jason Kelce said. "But Danny could have played in Howard's scheme - 100 percent, I firmly believe. He's athletic enough. He's big enough, obviously. He's smart enough."

But there were impediments. For one, Watkins remains a relative novice to the game, having first picked it up at 22. There was the ankle injury he suffered in Week 6 against the Lions - one Reid called "chronic." He played with a broken bone in his ankle during his senior season at Baylor.

And then there were Watkins' and Mudd's differing personalities.

"Howard's a very dominant, controlling guy," Kelce said. "And I think for Danny, it was hard for him to take his coaching. It was hard for him to understand that Howard's not yelling at him because he's angry at him or yelling at him because he doesn't think Danny can do it. Danny, whenever he gets yelled at, he kind of crawls up."

Kelce, drafted five rounds after Watkins, said that he took to Mudd's methods and praised the veteran coach.

"For the offensive line as a whole," he said, "Howard was outstanding."

Watkins declined to discuss the issues he and Mudd had, but credited the 70-year old with teaching him a lot about the game.

"I've learned a lot from him," Watkins said. "He's been an encyclopedia of knowledge. He's been doing this a long time. I'm eager to learn and more than willing."

Injuries plagued the offensive line this season. Peters ruptured his Achilles tendon in March. Kelce tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in Week 2. And right tackle Todd Herremans suffered a major foot injury in Week 9. All were season-ending.

Watkins' ankle injury sidelined him for three weeks and rookie Dennis Kelly filled in during that span. Watkins was active against the Redskins on Nov. 18, but Jake Scott, an old Mudd hand signed five days earlier, started at right guard.

Scott has been there since.

"Danny started off with an injury and you let another guy in and then you learn a lesson there," Reid said. "He'll have another opportunity to get in and get himself back in playing. He's a good football player."

When Evan Mathis injured his ankle earlier this month, Watkins took practice repetitions at left guard and was pressed into duty Dec. 13 when Mathis left the Bengals game early.

"I feel really natural on the left side," said Watkins, who played left tackle in college. "It's weird how moving your feet from a lefthanded stance to right feels better."

Mathis is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season at left guard, although he has also played on the right. Assuming that Peters, Kelce, and Herremans remain on course in their rehabs, the Eagles should have four-fifths of their starting line back for next season.

Scott will be a free agent. Watkins is still guaranteed $2.2 million over the next two years of his contract. So he will likely be back and get another opportunity with the Eagles.

A fresh start could provide a way back to a starting job.


Contact Jeff McLane at jmclane@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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