Jaylen Watkins is fresh off the field. Phase 2 of the offseason program has arrived, and with it comes a new challenge for Watkins, a second-year defensive back who could play a key role for the Eagles this season.
"Being out there on the field and making calls again, it was great," Watkins said. "It's another step for me, one that I welcome."
A fourth-round draft pick from Florida last year, Watkins learned all three positions in the secondary, as the Eagles teach the defense. At times, it was dizzying literally going from nickel cornerback to outside cornerback and then to safety in successive practice reps. Watkins was required to master the entire defense, including the responsibilities of the linebackers in coverage.
That huge mental test is one that, Watkins realizes, has paid off now. The concepts are no longer foreign to Watkins. He can play on his instincts and, thus, play faster football. There is no hesitation any longer.
As a result, Watkins could find himself in the middle of the defense this season. He's in the mix now, that's for sure. While nothing is fully determined this early in the aiming-toward-September process, Watkins knows he's going to get his chances to win playing time either at cornerback -- could be the nickel job, could be outside -- or at safety.
He's ready to go.
"I'm really excited about it," Watkins said. "Last year was a great experience and I learned a lot every day. Playing in the final game (at the New York Giants) gave me a taste of what to expect and to reinforce some of the things I know I need to work on.
"I've improved a lot. I know I'm a better player now than I was last season and I'm anxious to prove it every day."
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A common theory is that Watkins will make the move to safety given the glut of cornerbacks the Eagles have on their roster. They signed Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond and E.J. Biggers in free agency. They drafted three cornerbacks -- one of whom, Eric Rowe, could project as a cornerback or a safety -- and that room looks pretty full.
Safety, meanwhile, is an open book for this defense. Other than Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles have nobody proven to play there. There are some promising candidates, and Watkins is one of them.
"If that's where they want me to play, ultimately, that's fine with me," Watkins said. "I know the defense and the demands of that spot. Malcolm is a huge help with that. Every day we're talking about the defense and discussing different looks. I've got it from the mental standpoint.
"For me, it's showing it every day on and off the field. Wherever they want me to play, I've got to be ready."
Watkins saw action in four games as a rookie, mostly limited-action stuff until the finale at New York. With Bradley Fletcher on the sidelines, the Eagles pushed Watkins into duty. He had his ups and downs against a dynamic Giants passing attack, led by rookie sensation Odell Beckham, Jr. The learning part of it was invaluable for Watkins.
"Oh, it was something I carried with me well into the offseason," he said. "I watched it a lot and studied the film. I made some plays and they made some plays on me. That was a great group we were going against. It was a perfect place to start for me and it sent me into the offseason knowing more some of the things I needed to work on."
Watkins said his top offseason priority was improving his strength, and he's done that. Improving his technique is a daily goal. Watkins has enough size and speed to play at either cornerback position or at safety.
Where will he land? The Eagles are likely to give him reps throughout the secondary in the spring and then make Watkins' job description more specific in time for Training Camp.
"I have to be patient, and that's something I learned last year. It was challenging. I was used to playing all the time," Watkins said. "I knew I had a lot to learn in the NFL, just like every player. How you use that opportunity is, I think, really important. Malcolm is such a great mentor and a teacher. He is always helpful telling us to learn what every position is doing.
"Things are going well. We'll see what happens. I know I've put myself in a position to play well. I have confidence. I have worked hard to improve my strength and I think I'm a completely different player than I was a year ago."
How much Watkins figures into the defensive plan depends upon his performance. The entire secondary is starting from the ground floor with new coaches Cory Undlin and Matthew Harper. There are going to be some style differences -- more physical at the line of scrimmage, some different techniques taught -- and the players know they have to adjust to the new staff.
There is a lot on Watkins' plate now as the Eagles determine just how much he can handle in his second season. Can Watkins work his way into a starting job? Can he help solve the long-standing void at safety?
"I have a lot of confidence in myself that whatever they ask me to do," he said, "I can do it. It's fun and I'm in a different place than I was last year."