Watkins Finds his Niche at Safety
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - It took awhile but Jaylen Watkins has finally found his NFL home.
And it’s on the back end of Jim Schwartz’s defense, where the third-year player, who was drafted by Philadelphia back in 2014 as a cornerback, has emerged as the team’s third safety behind impact starters, Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod.
Watkins, the brother of Buffalo star receiver Sammy Watkins, played both positions in college at the University of Florida, starting 20 games at corner, two in the slot, and six more at free safety, before arriving in Philadelphia as a fourth-round pick trying to break into to the lineup as a nickel back.
He stuck around on the Eagles’ 53-man roster during his rookie season but played sparingly, appearing in just four games and making his defensive debut in the season finale that year against the New York Giants, playing in 30 defensive snaps and making three tackles and breaking up a pass.
By the time September of 2015 rolled around, however, Watkins was on the outside, looking in after the Eagles signed big-money free agent Byron Maxwell and drafted cornerback Eric Rowe. He was released but only ended up unemployed for two days as Buffalo signed him to the practice squad and reunited him with his brother Sammy.
Watkins’ stay in western New York, however, was cut short when Philadelphia came calling again after Nolan Carroll’s season-ending broken ankle on Thanksgiving Day.
The Eagles plucked Watkins off the Bills’ PS and the Sunshine State native appeared in the final four games of 2015, as he played 83 defensive snaps, including a career-high 49 against Arizona on Dec. 20 when he knocked down a pair of passes.
With a new coaching staff in place, things changed for Watkins in the offseason as he was moved to safety, where he started on the third-team before moving up to the second unit, running alongside Ed Reynolds.
When Jenkins suffered a minor hamstring injury in training camp, it was Reynolds who got the first opportunity to mix in next to McLeod. Watkins was then tried the next day and hasn’t given up his slot in the pecking order since.
In fact, Watkins has been so impressive in the first two preseason games that ProFootballFocus.com has rated him the best safety in football so far in the preseason, a testament to his skill set and what Jim Schwartz saw in it.
“Jaylen has a skill-set of corner-safety. [He] played both at Florida. We've moved him to safety to try to take advantage of that,” Schwartz explained. “ His challenge had always been tackling and run game. Last year if you watched a little bit of him, that's where he broke down a little bit, and early in camp this year, that's where he broke down. I think he's worked very hard and the coaches worked very hard with him to address that. And you're seeing the results of that. He's playing more aggressively in the run game.”
“I understand the run game pretty good here,” Watkins said at his locker Tuesday when discussing run support. “So it’s not about understanding. It’s about getting in more positions to do it. Last week I had three opportunities (to make tackles) and made them, next week hopefully it’s four.
“I still have a lot more to prove. Still get in situations tackling wise just for me confidence-wise.”
It’s hard to say things could have gone better at this point, though.
Asked why he’s translated so well in this defense, Watkins pointed back toward his cornerback-level coverage skills.
“Well, safeties cover a lot (in this defense). It’s very aggressive,” he said. “We have a good front now so quarterbacks try to get the ball out and with tight coverage and we are able to make plays.”
The success has also changed Watkins’ mindest. At one time he wanted to play corner but now he’s embracing his new home
“Before I preferred corner,” Watkins admitted. “Now I’m starting to feel more comfortable back there and confident so I like where I’m at now.”
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen