The Eagles have a very crowded secondary which can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. It’s a healthy situation to be in when you compare it to the injury woes the team suffered a season ago, but it also means the Eagles are going to be forced to cut some very talented young players. It’s also important to remember that the NFC East is a vicious division when it comes to receivers.
The Eagles will have to face the following wideouts two times in 2016.
Odell Beckham Jr
Rowe may have been dropped in at the deep end against Megatron and forced to emerge as as a reliable shutdown corner as the season come to an end, but even with the additions of McKelvin and Brooks, the re-signing of Nolan Carroll and the drafting of both Blake Countess and Jalen Mills..stopping these receivers is still going to prove to be an almighty task. The Eagles would be wise to retain the services of a cornerback who may not necessarily be a starter, but can be an effective situational corner and stick to speedsters such as DeSean Jackson like glue, alleviating the deep threat.
The right man for the job is a name that may not come to mind straight away…Jaylen Watkins. A 4th round pick by the Eagles in 2014, Watkins is not regarded as a shutdown corner by any stretch of the imagination. In fact after giving up a 73-yard touchdown against the Bears in his rookie season amongst a handful of other errors, many seemed to look straight past him. After being cut and spending time with the Bills practice squad, Watkins was resigned by the Eagles during the injury storm and largely went under the radar..but when looking back at the film, it’s clear to see he really shouldn’t have.
His first real call to arms came against the Cardinals. After playing just three snaps all season, Watkins was thrust into the firing line against Carson Palmer and a group of very established receivers. In the closing stages of the first half, Palmer aired out a deep pass to John Brown. Watkins keeps ahead of his receiver and leaves enough space to ensure that if Brown shifts to his left then he can quickly adapt. The pass is thrown and Brown makes his run inside. At that moment, Watkins closes extremely quickly and with next to no contact is able to push the ball out of harms way.
In the third quarter, we saw both a strength and a weakness of Watkins emerge. Malcolm Floyd is able to create a lot of space on a curl route to haul in a catch but Watkins brings him down with authority to prevent YAC. The main criticism here is that Watkins’ style of play ensures that there is space between him and the receiver so he can adjust to the route and stay with them stride-for-stride. Watkins was considerably slower to react than Floyd which enabled the passing lane to remain wide open. The positive here is that again, he closed down quickly and wrapped his arms around the receiver.
It’s easy to look at the tape and overlook his missed strip on that confusing yet equally impressive 47 yard rushing touchdown by Johnson, but then again you could critique most of the Defense on that play. It was a moment of poor judgement in which he chose to strip the ball opposed to stopping the run..but considering his limited time on the Defense, it’s fair to say he’s going to make some mistakes.
In the fourth quarter, Watkins faced a formidable foe in Larry Fitzgerald. His play however was very impressive. Watkins again stayed ahead of his man to prevent a deep route, read the slant and closed quickly to force an incompletion.
After playing 49 snaps against the Cardinals, Watkins was again dropped in the deep end lining up against notorious speedster DeSean Jackson in a pivotal game for the Eagles. Kirk Cousins was red hot, the Redskins were gaining momentum and the responsibility of stopping one of the team’s most explosive receivers fell to a cornerback who had minimal playing time in the games prior.
Cousins aimed to exploit the speed of DeSean Jackson in the third Quarter, but it was something Watkins wasn’t going to allow. Watkins not only stuck with Jackson on a deep route on a play that fell incomplete, but showed very intelligent play.
On a closer look you can see Watkins open his hips and stretch his arm out. Not only does this mean he’s allowing himself to go stride-for-stride with the former Eagles receiver, but he’s ready to make the push out of bounds should the pass have found its target. Watkins is not renowned for his speed..but the confidence to open up some space between himself and Jackson is impressive.
One of the main criticisms Watkins faces is his strength. For instance there was that play in 2014 against the Giants in which Larry Donnell leaped over him effortlessly due to a missed tackle. His style allows for a lot of space to open and if he can’t make the tackle then things begin to get messy. Here however, the fourth round pick shows that he has refined his craft in the last 12 months. He was lining up against Pierre Garcon and showed no hesitation in bringing him down on a slant route over the middle. His positioning, while slightly behind the receiver is further up the field by a few inches. If Garcon were to cut and begin a deep run, Watkins would therefore have a slight advantage and be on the inside.
Jordan Reed led the Redskins in receiving that game, notching up 129 yards on 9 receptions and 11 targets. One of his failed targets? Jaylen Watkins.
Watkins again kept Reed ahead of him and jumped straight across the passing lane to force an incompletion. An incompletion which should have really been an interception but an incompletion nonetheless.
Watkins has a long road ahead of him. He isn’t a physically overpowering corner, nor does he possess elite speed. What he does have however is impressive technique. It wasn’t as if Watkins was lining up against receivers who rarely see the ball during his 84 defensive snaps in 2015.
Jim Schwartz’s system demands aggressive corners. Defensive backs who aren’t afraid to make a big tackle and will get down and dirty when they need too. It’s unclear whether Watkins can demonstrate that aggression and get in the face of the receiver he’s covering..but what he can do is stop a deep route developing. Something that’s going to be absolutely pivotal considering that every other team in the division has a deep threat.
Watkins may not be getting a start over Eric Rowe any time soon, but he could prove to be a very valuable situational player. His quick reads, even quicker feet and impressive technique could end up being pivotal in keeping the likes of Odell Beckham Jr quiet in 2016.
The Eagles defense is going to be one primed on attack. But if that hard tackle misses..or space opens up over the middle when the linebackers are intent on making the quarterback’s life miserable in an aggressive play, the birds need a reliable corner who can go stride-for-stride with any receiver he’s lined up against. Jaylen Watkins could well prove to be that man, don’t write him off just yet..the brother of Sammy Watkins has a lot more to give and Jim Schwartz could well get the best out of him.
Mandatory Photo Credit: Lori M. Nichols – South Jersey Times