This time last year, Jaylen Watkins was on the Bills practice squad, having been released by the Philadelphia Eagles after a strange Summer. The former fourth round pick spent his rookie season turning heads on special teams and played just 30 defensive snaps, struggling to make an impact. 12 months later, he has a very important defensive role. How did Watkins go from an unknown cornerback, to the team’s backup Safety?
The phrase “everything happens for a reason” is one often spoken when trying to make sense of why an event happened to you. For Jaylen Watkins, a trust in the phrase helped transform his game.
In fact after giving up a 73-yard touchdown against the Bears in his rookie season among a handful of other errors, many seemed to look straight past him..coaches included. The recently drafted Eric Rowe, the unknown of JaCorey Shepherd, an experienced E.J Biggers and some impressive camp performances from undrafted rookies like Denzel Rice, filled the room with smoke. A room that Jaylen Watkins was stood at the back of as the coaches filled their lungs with what was around them.
During his time in Buffalo, Watkins reunited with his brother, Sammy Watkins. Having attended different High-Schools and different Colleges, the pair were finally able to compete head-to-head. Receiver vs cornerback, brother vs brother. Watkins may have only been on the practice squad, but being able to line up against his physical brother Sammy, who that year went on to lead his team in receiving, racking up 982 yards and 6 touchdowns, meant that his levels of physicality and tackling were naturally improving.
Deep into the 2015 season however, Nolan Carroll’s impressive campaign was cut short with an ankle injury sustained in the thanksgiving blowout bestowed upon Chip Kelly and his Eagles by Detroit. Jaylen Watkins was signed in his place..and the performances in those closing games have largely gone under the radar..but they shouldn’t have.
Now a firm tackler and a more instinctive defensive back after learning from Leodis McKelvin who joins him in Philadelphia, Watkins was dropped in the deep end, just like Eric Rowe. Larry Fitzgerald, DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed and John Brown are just a few of the receivers that Watkins faced in his 160 snaps of 2015..faced, and overcome.
Jordan Reed led the Redskins in receiving during the game Watkins played in the nickel spot, notching up 129 yards on 9 receptions and 11 targets. One of his failed targets? You guessed it.
DeSean Jackson? No problem.
Against the Cardinals, Watkins allowed just one pass on Malcolm Floyd in six targets, a stunning 29 yard catch. So at the end of an unsettled 2015 campaign where Watkins was being asked to play as a Safety and corner, where his run Defense which was less than stellar was called upon more than it should have been, his job remained uncertain.
Watkins survived the Chip Kelly roster purge and made it onto the Jim Schwartz Defense..but it was out of the pan and into the fire, or so it seemed. With eleven defensive backs on the roster, the Eagles cornerback corps was filled to the brim with a mix of talented young corners, all possessing different skill sets, trying to break onto the roster.
Watkins was quiet. Below the radar. Jalen Mills was the man stealing the show as Watkins’ grip on a roster spot started to slip..that was until, they moved him to Safety. The position was still heavily contested, Jenkins and McLeod had secured the starting roles long before Camp and Chris Maragos has a presence on special teams unheard of elsewhere..so that left Watkins, Ed Reynolds and sixth round pick Blake Countess.
But then, something clicked. Without having to be so prominent in run Defense or switch playing styles depending on situation, Watkins found his balance and began to walk the roster cut tightrope. Interceptions, pass deflections and big hits filled the final practices of Training camp as for the first time since being drafted, the name Jaylen Watkins was beginning to receive a lot of attention.
That carried deep into preseason.
Top graded players this preseason (by position)
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, TB
SAF: Jaylen Watkins, PHI
— PFF (@PFF) August 30, 2016
In the first two preseason games, Watkins amassed 6 tackles, 2 pass deflections and an interception..and that was enough. That was enough to convince Jim Schwartz that the vastly underrated third safety role should belong to him.
The importance of the third safety spot is paramount in the Defense of Jim Schwartz. As noted by PFF, NFL Defenses played nickel formations 63.4% of the time last season. With the Bye-week falling as early as the third week, the Eagles defensive backs could take a knock or two in the latter stages of 2016, heightening the value of Watkins even further.
With such an aggressive pass rush, the Safeties “last line of Defense” description becomes even more direct..it’s all or nothing. Not only that, but Schwartz often leans towards a 4-2-5 formation, meaning that the third Safety isn’t just there in case of an injury to a starting tandem poised for a big year, he’s part of it.
Watkins has the experience of playing Safety at College and cornerback in the NFL. The consistency in zone looks is what drew Schwartz to executing the moves,but as proved in my All-22 a few months ago, he can be just as effective in man coverage, meaning his versatility is invaluable to this Defense.
A year ago, many fans would have forgotten about Jaylen Watkins, a fourth round cornerback that had simply bounced out to Buffalo. But a resurgence, a confidence in his play and an impressive showing when dropped in the deep end without any help, earned Watkins not only the right to compete for a roster spot in 2016, but to beat Blake Countess and Ed Reynolds to a role that could become vital to the success of the Defense in 2016, given the tenacious nature of Jim Schwartz’s scheme.
Watkins becomes a restricted free agent next year and had he not moved to Safety, he would have been lost in the dust of the cornerbacks or simply gained a role as a depth corner..hoping that the Eagles don’t decide to improve the position through the draft next year.
From a financial perspective, Watkins is not Marcus Smith. He doesn’t have a relatively big contract keeping him tied to a spot regardless of performance, he doesn’t have chance after chance being gifted to him. In making this team in such a pivotal role, Jaylen Watkins may have just given himself a shot at a contract extension that would have otherwise evaded him completely.
Jaylen Watkins has defied the odds to not just sit on the depth chart, but earn a position as the Eagles third Safety. His story doesn’t end here however, if anything..it only just begins.
Mandatory Photo Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports