When Jaylen Watkins was released by the Eagles a year ago, he started looking for excuses.
He never got a fair chance. Flip-flopping back and forth from corner to safety hurt him. The coaches didn’t like him.
He felt sorry for himself, and that lasted for two weeks.
Then he realized he had to be honest with himself or he was never going to be able to resurrect his NFL career.
“There’s two ways you can take being released, man,” Watkins said. “You can say it’s a failure or you can be honest with yourself and say, ‘Hey man, I’ve got to get better.’
“When you get released, immediately you try to find reasons to justify why you got released, and I think I did that for the first two weeks. But then I understood that if I want to play this game, I’ve got to find the reason I got released.”
Watkins, a fourth-round pick in 2014, spent his rookie year with the Eagles, playing in four games, mainly on special teams. After he was released last Sept. 1, he signed to the Bills’ practice squad, where he began the process of addressing his deficincies.
“For me, it went back to tackling,” he said. “When I was honest with myself, why did the Eagles release me? There were a couple plays I should have made, and I just said, ‘Next time around, let’s just see if I can clean this up and maybe it’ll work out.’
“And if doesn’t, then find something else I have to get better at and focus on improving there. It’s about correcting what you know is really wrong.”
In Buffalo, Watkins was reunited with younger half-brother Sammie, whose 2,029 receiving yards the last two seasons with the Bills are 22nd-most in NFL history by a player in his first two years.
Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Jaylen Watkins made the most of his time in Buffalo.
“I just looked at it as an opportunity,” he said. “A lot of people don’t get them in this world, and I realized I didn’t take advantage of mine the first time. So going to Buffalo, went up there and got better, learned some things from those guys.
“I was playing corner in Buffalo but I was on scout team, so I was doing a little bit of everything. Playing corner, playing safety, covering my brother, covering tight ends, Charles Clay, so I got a lot of different things every day and I took advantage of it.”
The best thing about being in Buffalo was the two months Watkins got to spend with Sammie. Since they went to different high schools in Florida and different colleges, it was the first time in their lives they were teammates in organized football.
“It was great,” Jaylen said. “I would wear the other team’s Revis or Malcolm Butler (jersey) or whoever they were playing and lock in on him. He would get 15 targets each practice and I couldn’t go for the ball because it was scout team, but I was able to actually get more rough with him than most db’s because I’m his brother and he wanted that from me.
“So I was able to get some good work for two months, and it made me a better player.”
When Eagles corner Nolan Carroll broke his ankle playing against the on Lions on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit, the Eagles signed Watkins off the Bills’ practice squad to take his roster spot.
He ended up playing 80 snaps in late-season games against the Cards and Redskins and although his tackling still wasn't where it needed to be, he showed enough in coverage to survive the transition from Chip Kelly and Billy Davis to Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz.
This summer, Watkins has played exclusively safety, and he’s been one of the biggest surprises in camp. He’s played very well in both preseason games and has been solid in practice.
“I played safety in a similar system in college, covering the slot, being active in the box, so it’s familiar to me,” he said. “Being able to recognize formations and sets and stuff like that, I do pretty well with that now. The coverage part, I feel good about that. That comes easy for me.
“Tackling? I knew that’s where I had to get better and I feel like I put out two good games of tackling so far, so I feel good about that.”
Nothing is set behind starters Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, but right now it looks like Watkins is ahead of third-year pro Ed Reynolds, who was taken one round after Watkins in that 2014 draft, and rookie sixth-round pick Blake Countess.
Chris Maragos, a safety by trade, is essentially guaranteed a roster spot because of his special teams ability.
“His challenge has always been tackling and run game,” Schwartz said before practice Tuesday. “Last year, if you watched a little bit of him, that’s where he broke down a little bit. Early in camp this year, that’s where he broke down.
“He’s worked very hard, and the coaches have 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. And there’s times that safeties can play aggressively, and there’s times where they can’t.
“When you’re the last line of defense, you’ve got to get that guy on the ground however you can. But there’s sometimes where there’s leverage and there’s a hole to fill, you need to be a missile, you need to go fill it, and he’s done a good job of that.
“He’s on the right track. We just need to keep seeing improvement from him. I’m very proud of him. He’s done a really good job. It’s easy to work on your strengths. He’s really shown he’s willing to work on his weaknesses, and it’s shown on the field.”
Watkins said the coaches told him after the draft and free agency that from this point forward he was going to play safety.
The Eagles have a bunch of young corners, and the move to safety has allowed Watkins to really establish himself at one position.
“This year, it was like, ‘We’re going to move you to safety and that’s it, where in the past it was, ‘OK, you’re going to play some of this and some of that and we might move you back and forth,’” he said. “Now I can focus on one thing.
“It’s tough to both. You can do it in college because you’re just more athletic but once you get to this level, man, it’s tough to juggle.
“I’m just trying to take advantage of anything I can as long as I can play, man, and it’s working out good for me. Just keep learning as much as I can from Malcolm and Rodney."
Like Watkins said, getting released can send a player in a lot of different directions.
A year later, Watkins has turned it into a positive.
“Obviously, I would have loved to never get released and be here all last year," Watkins said. "But I don’t know if I would have been the same player if I hadn’t been gone through it. I don't know if I'd be the same player if I hadn't been released."