Watkins' IQ impressing Eagles' staff

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Rookie Jaylen Watkins is proving every day that he is a student of the game.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Rookie Jaylen Watkins is proving every day that he is a student of the game.
Posted: June 23, 2014

AS A SENIOR on a struggling University of Florida team, Jaylen Watkins started some games at cornerback and others at safety. But if you listen to Eagles defensive backs coach John Lovett expound on Watkins' allure, that mere fact doesn't fully contextualize the player's versatility and football intelligence.

"When you talk to him about his defense at Florida, he knew what everybody did," Lovett said. "I talked to the defensive coordinator [D.J. Durkin] down there. They put him in at positions that he hadn't even practiced that week because he knew what everybody was doing. He's really got a great football IQ."

That is partially why the Eagles felt comfortable putting a lot on the rookie's plate right off the bat. While adjusting to defensive coordinator Billy Davis' system and life in the NFL, Watkins has been tasked this spring with learning both cornerback and nickelback in the Philadelphia defense.

"I did it at Florida. It's challenging, especially for a new defense, but it's fun," said Watkins, who's also practiced on special teams. "It's all football and everything circles around each other. There's a call back at Florida that I had, I can kind of match it with something here and kind of remember it. It's kind of like a puzzle."

Watkins, a fourth-round pick in last month's draft, is one of three Eagles to spend the spring at both cornerback and nickelback but the only rookie. Brandon Boykin's 5-10, 185-pound frame all but ensures he'll continue to see in-game reps mostly on the inside. Roc Carmichael, entering in his fourth NFL season, also saw time at both spots last season.

The considerable differences between cornerback and nickelback make it as if Watkins is adjusting to basically two positions in the Eagles' defense. The play calls at either position mean different things. Cornerbacks can find themselves on an island playing one-on-one against a receiver. Lining up in the slot there is some help from the linebackers when in zone defense and perhaps from a safety over the top when in man coverage. While playing on the inside, one can afford to be a bit more aggressive.

Through the Eagles' 10 organized team activities and this past week's 3-day mini-camp, Watkins has practiced mostly with the third-team defense. During regular periods, he lines up at cornerback. When the defense switches to nickel periods, he's in the slot.

Watkins, 21, admits it's a lot to learn but said it's what he expected and prefers and added he feels he's grasping the defense well. The terminology and schemes are different from those at Florida, he said, but the base concepts bear similarities.

"This is the big leagues," said Watkins, whose half-brother Sammy was the No. 4 overall pick in this year's draft. "It's nothing less than I expected. It's a lot on your plate, but [there's] no more school so you have a lot more time."

Watkins' versatility could help him garner some snaps as a rookie, but Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and free-agent signee Nolan Carroll are ahead of him at cornerback and Boykin is expected to once again be the Eagles' top nickelback. Watkins, among the fastest players on the Eagles' roster, will likely contribute this season on special teams and could be groomed for a bigger role in the secondary in the future.

The Eagles were attracted to Watkins, Lovett said, because of his size, strength, athleticism and smarts. When asked this week about the 101st overall pick, Lovett referenced the 22 repetitions the former Gator put up on the 225-pound bench press at February's NFL Combine. That's an indicator, the coach said, that Watkins could physically hold up playing in the slot and prove to be a good blitzer.

The Eagles list Watkins at 5-11 and 194 pounds. Watkins' Florida bio pegged him at 6-0.

"Big and fast is better than small and fast for the most part," Lovett said.

Like the other Eagles' newcomers, Watkins is still getting used to the fast pace of Chip Kelly's practices - "It's fast in the SEC, but I mean this tempo that coach runs is on another level," Watkins said - and just learning the ins and outs of the new system. He and his fellow rookies will next week attend the NFL's Rookie Symposium in Aurora, Ohio. Watkins will then head to Boca Raton, Fla., where he readied for the combine, and with second-year safety Earl Wolff prepare for the July 25 opening of training camp.

"I think definitely this is a crucial time because when we go into camp it's full speed," Watkins said. "That's when the cuts start happening, you've got preseason games coming up and that's when you want to be at your best. So we got a taste of what we'll be getting into out here, got our foot in the playbook a little bit, so it's full speed now when we get into camp."

On Twitter: @jakemkaplan

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