Honeymoon over for Eagles' Watkins

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Danny Watkins has to adapt to new head and offensive-line coaches.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Danny Watkins has to adapt to new head and offensive-line coaches.
Posted: April 19, 2013

THE EAGLES started their voluntary offseason strength and conditioning program on April 1, which, as luck would have it, happened to be just 2 days after Danny Watkins got married.

If Andy Reid, who selected Watkins with the 23rd overall pick in the draft 2 years ago, still was the Eagles' head coach, and if Watkins had lived up to first-round expectations the last two seasons, he almost certainly would've headed to Aruba rather than South Philadelphia.

But Reid was canned on Dec. 31 and Watkins, who started just six games last season, is perilously close to joining the Eagles' long, long list of first-round draft busts.

Aruba wasn't an option.

"We had the wedding, woke up the next morning, got dressed, jumped on a plane and flew to Philly," the 28-year-old offensive guard said Wednesday after the second day of the Eagles' predraft minicamp under new coach Chip Kelly. "That was the honeymoon. A flight from Texas to Philadelphia."

Watkins doesn't really mean that. At least I hope he doesn't if he expects to stay married very long. He'd better be taking his wife to a tropical island after the team's last minicamp in June and before the start of two-a-days in late July.

But he clearly understood the importance to his career of being at the NovaCare Complex when the doors opened the morning of April 1.

This is put-up-or-shut-up time for Watkins. He's used up all of his mulligans.

The guy who drafted him is gone. If he can't convince Kelly in the next few months that he belongs in the Eagles' season-opening starting lineup, there's a very good chance he'll be shown the door. Because 28-year-old first-round picks don't make very good bench ornaments.

Watkins understands that.

"These past couple of years haven't been the way I wanted," he said. "This is a good opportunity for me."

Like many of his teammates, he seems to have embraced the head-coaching change. He loves the energy that Kelly brings to the table.

Loves the up-tempo offense and the up-tempo workouts and the emphasis on nutrition and rest.

Loves the personalized protein recovery shakes that are waiting for the players when they come off the practice field. Loves the heart monitors and the sleep monitors.

Especially loves the new offensive-line coach, Jeff Stoutland, and not just because his name isn't Howard Mudd.

"It's like he came in and overhauled the building," Watkins said of Kelly. "Actually, he did take the doors off in some of the rooms. He's changed everything. Strength and conditioning. Nutrition. How we recover. And the major stuff. The offense and how we're running things out here.

"He's definitely changed things for the better. I guess you could say it's a very electrified atmosphere."

Watkins' first two NFL seasons went nothing like he or the Eagles had hoped. As a rookie, he struggled to learn Mudd's unorthodox blocking technique and didn't respond very well to the 70-year-old offensive-line coach's tough love approach with him.

He spent the first four games of the 2011 season on the bench. Started the final 12, but was inconsistent.

Last year, the wheels came off. All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters missed the entire season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon, and center Jason Kelce tore his ACL in Week 2. Later, right tackle Todd Herremans would suffer a season-ending broken right foot.

Watkins' play went from bad to worse. He suffered a left ankle injury in October and sat out three games. When he was healthy enough to return, Reid and Mudd kept him on the bench, opting to go with veteran Jake Scott, who had been signed off the street, at right guard.

Mudd, who was one of the league's very best offensive-line coaches, liked Watkins. He was very influential in the Eagles' decision to draft him.

But Watkins, who had been playing football for just 4 years when the Eagles drafted him, struggled with Mudd's pass-set, which bore no resemblance to anything he learned at Baylor. And he didn't react well to the old man's in-your-face hollering and screaming.

Mudd, a former NFL offensive linemen, had spent nearly 40 years as an NFL offensive-line coach. This is Stoutland's first pro gig after nearly 30 years as a college assistant, the last two at Alabama.

Stoutland has established an excellent rapport with Watkins. In the last 3 weeks, Watkins has spent more time with him than he has with his new bride.

"Right from the wedding, I was in his office less than 24 hours later," he said. "I think we feed off each other's enthusiasm. He always makes time for me. If he's in a meeting with [Kelly], he'll make a point of shooting me a quick text saying, 'Hey, meet me at this time.'

"So we'll meet in the morning and in the afternoon and after practice. He's the kind of guy you want to work for. You don't look at him like he's your boss."

Asked about his relationship with Mudd, Watkins said, "That's done and over with. That was the old era. I'm just looking into the future now. Trying not to look back.

"Coach Stout has a different style of coaching. And I think a lot of players respond better to that. It's not the old-school, traditional way. The way he's doing it, I like it."

We'll find out soon enough whether it works. Watkins never was able to get the hang of Mudd's pass-set. A left tackle at Baylor, he also struggled more than expected when the Eagles moved him to the right side of the line.

"At Baylor, I was always in a lefthanded stance," Watkins said. "I'm still learning how to transition [to the right side]. Moving your feet from that to that isn't a big deal to a lot of people. But I had never done it before. And to do it in an untraditional way, it definitely was a steep learning curve."

If the Eagles could somehow know that the light finally was going to go on for Watkins this season and that he would start playing the way they had envisioned when they drafted him, it might afford them a little more flexibility in next week's draft.

There might not be as great an urgency to use their first-round pick on an offensive tackle if they knew there wasn't going to be a need to eventually move Herremans inside. But a 3-day minicamp isn't going to completely convince them that Watkins has turned the corner.

Watkins, though, believes he has.

"The big thing for me is just working on confidence," he said. "In the past 2 days, I feel so much further ahead than I would've last year in 2 days, if that makes any sense.

"This is the strongest I've ever been. And we're not even a quarter of the way through [the offseason]. I think a lot of that has to do with the preparation I did in January, February and March down in Texas.

"Getting my ankle better and getting everything ready, and then coming here and just the work I've been doing with these guys. This new offense is more geared to what I think our strengths are. Getting both Jasons [Peters and Kelce] back this year, it's definitely going to be an exciting time up front."

By mid-August, we'll know whether Watkins is going to be a part of that excitement.

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