But then, Watkins remembered: He’s not a rookie anymore.
At this time last year, the Eagles had just signed journeyman offensive lineman Kyle DeVan because they didn’t think Watkins was ready. That experiment last four games. In three of those, Watkins didn’t even dress.
But he eventually got his chance, producing mixed results in the final 12 games. The offseason has been about exiting the “valley of darkness” as offensive line coach Howard Mudd put it. It was another way of saying Watkins needed to be sure of himself and eliminate doubt.
“Last year, he was an extremely raw player,” said Kelce. “And obviously, if you know his background and everything, you know last year he had only been playing football for four years. Only two or three of those years were Division I, BCS level. So the knowledge that he has, and the knowledge that I have really isn’t comparable, coming out of college.
“Now, having a full offseason under his belt, finally learning to think about things in different ways than he’s used to, he can now watch film on his own and tell what’s going on. ‘I screwed up there. I should be doing this.’ That’s huge. Really, if you’re at the level where you should be mentally, you should know immediately after a play, I just screwed that up. Last year, he wasn’t at that level, whereas now, he’s slowly able to recognize, ‘I should have did that better that last play.'”
Watkins said Kelce has been a huge help this offseason and pegged him to have a great sophomore campaign. The two came into the league together in 2011 – Watkins as a first-round pick, and Kelce as a sixth-rounder. Asked to pinpoint what the key area of focus has been this offseason, Watkins couldn’t choose just one thing.
“When you know the scheme, you know what technique to use,” he said. “And when you know the technique to use, you know you’re going to have a better block. So it’s kind of a snowball effect, I guess you could say. When you know what’s going on and you understand it all, everything kind of jells and lines up and meshes better together.”
The Eagles are counting on Watkins to take the leap in 2012. Evan Mathis proved to be a reliable, consistent left guard in 2011. Todd Herremans played well at right tackle and should only get better. And Kelce showed steady improvement after being thrust into the starting lineup.
The success of this unit as a whole will largely depend on Watkins and whoever’s playing left tackle. King Dunlap is currently there for Jason Peters. He’s started seven games total since being drafted in 2008 and will now face the opposing team’s top pass rusher on a weekly basis.
Watkins, meanwhile, has a new knowledge base, and those around him are expecting right guard to be a strength. Kelce said last year, Watkins was focused on learning his rules and his assignments. This year, he’s learning where everyone else is supposed to be too, and that will help.
“On every play, for him, you have to know what the right tackle and the center are doing,” Kelce said. “What the guys next to him are going to do, so that if there’s a slant, an angle, a backer looping around or something, you know how to get out of those situations.”
We’ll start to find out on Sunday what kind of difference a year has made.
Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.