Can Stoutland save Danny Watkins' career?

Can Stoutland save Danny Watkins' career?
February 15, 2013, 9:00 am
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The Eagles drafted Danny Watkins with the 23rd pick in 2011. (USA Today Images)

Before you write off Danny Watkins, before you file him in the drawer labeled “Busts” along with Jaiquawn Jarrett and Macho Harris, Jeff Stoutland would like a word with you.

The word is Patience.

Stoutland is the Eagles' new offensive line coach and he thinks Watkins still can be a big-time player. He has read the scouting reports and watched the film and he is convinced there is a lot there. So don’t ship Danny Boy back to the firehouse just yet.

“I know what a good player looks like,” Stoutland said on Monday, “and I like what I see in Danny.”

Stoutland should know what a good player looks like. He spent the 2012 season coaching the Alabama offensive line, the line that crushed Notre Dame in the BCS title game, a line with three stud players -- center Barrett Jones, guard Chance Warmack and tackle D.J. Fluker -- that will go early in April’s draft.

Watkins was a first-round pick two years ago but now he is viewed as a colossal mistake. He lost his starting job to a guy off the street (Jake Scott) last season. He fell so far out of favor with the Eagles' coaches that he didn’t even dress for the final two games.

Most fans see Watkins as a lost cause. Stoutland sees something entirely different.

“I think Danny Watkins is a winner,” Stoutland said. “He’s athletic, he’s explosive. I see a young man with a lot of talent.”

The first question that comes to mind is, “What film was Stoutland watching?” The player he described bore no resemblance to Watkins. It was almost painful to watch Watkins on film last season; he looked lost and ineffective.

Consider this: the Eagles started five different line combinations. They lost three starters to injury: Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans. By the end of the season, they were starting a seventh-round pick (King Dunlap), a rookie (Dennis Kelly), an undrafted free agent (Dallas Reynolds) and Scott, who was out of the league when the season began. And Watkins couldn’t crack that lineup?

There is a temptation to write him off as a bad pick, an over-aged college player with a limited football background, a reach that didn’t pan out. Those things happen. You cut your losses and move on. But the Eagles are determined to salvage Watkins, and Stoutland is the man entrusted with that responsibility.

Can it work? Like so much else about the Chip Kelly regime, we’ll have to wait and see. But at least Watkins has a clean slate with this staff and, in Stoutland, he has a coach who will do everything possible to rebuild his confidence.

Kelly described Stoutland as “a creative, cutting-edge line coach with old-school toughness.” He said Stoutland’s strength is his ability to make “complex things very simple.” That is exactly what Watkins needs if he hopes to succeed.

Stoutland will simplify things for Watkins. Howard Mudd, the previous line coach, made them more complicated. Mudd’s techniques were unlike anything most of the linemen had played before. It was particularly hard for Watkins, who had played so little football. Also, Stoutland believes in stressing the positive. Mudd was more critical. Maybe a pat on the back is what Watkins needs at this point.

Greg Austin, the assistant offensive line coach, is 28, the same age as Watkins. Like Stoutland, he believes in positive reinforcement.

“We’re going to be the most positive coaches on the field,” Austin said. “Jeff said, ‘I’ll never give up on one of our guys.’ I like that approach. I’m sure it will make guys play better.

“We’re going to put Danny in situations where he can be successful. There is no reason why he can’t be. He is a big, explosive guy. We want our linemen to play fast and physical. Danny can do that.”

Watkins has the size (6-3, 310 pounds) and strength. Watching him on film, it appears his biggest problem is indecision. If the defense runs a blitz or a stunt, Watkins is often left flat-footed with his head spinning. It has happened often enough that it wrecked his confidence. Instead of being the aggressive drive blocker he was in college, Watkins became a guy who was pushed around.

If Stoutland can put Watkins in a system he understands and teach him techniques that he is comfortable with, maybe then he can rebuild his confidence and develop into the lineman the Eagles drafted him to be. There is a lot riding on this. If Stoutland can’t unlock Watkins’ potential and he spends another year in the shadows, that probably will be the end of it and he will officially be a bust.

But Stoutland doesn’t foresee that.

“I can’t wait to get my hands on Danny and start coaching him,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

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