Monday, June 13, 2011

Danny Watkins: firefighter, trailblazer, NFL star, CFL issue?

One of the most notable stories of Thursday's first round of the NFL draft was the Philadelphia Eagles' selection of offensive lineman Danny Watkins 23rd overall. Watkins is intriguing on several fronts, as he was the oldest player selected in the first round since 1980, a former firefighter, the first Canadian to be chosen in the NFL's first round since Tim Biakabutka in 1996, the first player to be chosen in the first round of both the CFL and NFL drafts since Mike Schad in 1986 and only the fourth Canadian ever picked in the NFL's first round (after Schad, Tony Mandarich and Biakabutka). His story is incredible, and it illustrates a wide number of important topics, including how many different paths there are to professional football, how age isn't always everything and how difficult it can be for CFL teams to properly evaluate NFL interest in a player.

Watkins' path to the NFL is one of the most unusual in recent years. Unlike most NFL prospects who've played organized football for much of their lives, he only got into football at California's Butte Junior College after the coach noticed his size. It's remarkable that he was even there, too; a junior college is one of the few places that would work as an introduction to high-level football for a guy with so little gridiron experience, but Watkins didn't choose Butte because of its football program. He only went to junior college to study fire science at the suggestion of Lionel Bateman, a captain he'd worked with in West Kelowna, B.C.'s fire service. but that path led him to a stellar NCAA career at Waco, Texas' Baylor University, saw him selected fourth overall in last year's CFL draft, and then took him to New York for the first round of this year's NFL draft.

Watkins clearly still remembers where he came from, too; he brought five of his old West Kelowna firefighter buddies to New York for the draft, and they visited the site of Ground Zero beforehand, where 343 New York firefighters died along with almost 3,000 others in the September 11 attacks. After sharing that sobering moment with him, his firefighter friends got to experience a much happier one, giving Watkins (pictured above with his guests after being drafted) a standing ovation (which you can see here) when the Eagles chose him 23rd overall.

Watkins' story may read like a Hollywood script, but stories aren't everything. His talent shouldn't be overlooked just because of his unconventional path to pro football. Yes, Philadelphia is the city of fictional underdog hero Rocky and real-life underdog Vince Papale, who went from bartending to playing wide receiver for the Eagles (a story memorialized in the 2006 movie Invincible), but the NFL's business is built on winning games and players are chosen specifically for what they can bring on the field, especially in the first round. Watkins fits that mould; some have already pegged him as a Pro Bowl prospect, and as Shutdown Corner's Doug Farrar breaks down, Watkins' strength and agility could make him a tremendous asset to the Eagles:

Having never played guard in game situations before Senior Bowl week, Watkins kicked inside nonetheless and looked as if he'd played the position for years. He has a natural low stance from which he explodes into the defender. He also has tremendous upper-body strength; even when he's bent back at the point of attack, he can resurface and win the power battle. Has a wide lower body which he naturally uses to establish a strong base as he gets his second foot down and in position.

For his size (6-foot-4, 312 pounds), Watkins has real side-to-side agility; he's very good at preventing defenders from getting around him with quick outside moves. Played out of a two-point stance most of the time at Baylor, but told me at the Senior Bowl that he's just as happy to put his hand down and blow defenders out. Also practiced at the center position and had an equal affinity for that position.

It's worth reinforcing that while there are some football advantages to Watkins' unconventional background (for example, at 26, he's probably more mature and more suited to step in quickly than your typical NFL draft pick; his late start in football also means he's got less wear and tear on his body), he's been picked based on his football talents, not his story. The NFL is about what players can do on the field, not how they got to the field. For example, the most recent first-round pick with an unconventional story along the lines of Watkins was Michael Oher, also picked 23rd overall by the Ravens in 2009, and made famous in the book (and film) The Blind Side. The publicity got Oher attention among fans, but it's his size and agility that has made him a successful NFL tackle, and he's done very well so far. We don't know if Watkins' story will eventually get the Hollywood treatment as well, but if he's able to find NFL success, it's going to be on his own merits, not his narrative. (That success could be good for him, too; as the Goal-Line Stand guys pointed out, his current vehicle doesn't exactly fit the NFL mould.)

The Watkins tale does pose some issues for the CFL, however. As mentioned above, Watkins was selected fourth overall in the 2010 CFL Draft by the B.C. Lions. The CFL's eligibility rulesare quite strange, and they revolve around players being eligible four years after they've started college or university football (regardless of redshirting, injuries, et cetera), so Watkins was eligible for that draft in 2010 (technically, he could have declared for last year's NFL draft as well, but chose to return to Baylor for his senior year). At that time, there was some NFL buzz around Watkins, but nowhere near first-round levels. That made picking him risky, which is why he didn't go first overall last year, but given his talent and the limited levels of that buzz, he was still a very enticing prospect. Watkins really shot up NFL draft boards with his play during the 2010 season and at the Senior Bowl, though, and it's highly unlikely he'll ever play three-down football now.

As TSN's Dave Naylor tweeted today, that could prompt calls for the CFL to change its draft eligibility rules and stop selecting players who are eligible for a later NFL draft. That deserves a more thorough look down the road, but for now, Watkins and his incredible story are off to the NFL, and the B.C. Lions won't likely get any return on their selection of him. They're about the only ones who won't, though; Watkins' tale is inspiring for Canadian football players everywhere, his story makes great copy for us sportswriters, and his skills should reward the Eagles for taking a chance on him. It's heartwarming all around-unless you spent a first-round CFL draft pick on him.

Bonnie Jill Laflin Joanna Krupa Ashley Olsen Danneel Harris Veronika Vaeková

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