On the Lane Johnson/Danny Watkins Comparison

Eagles fans never forget.

Just last week, during ESPN’s 30 for 30, Elway To Marino, a reader Tweeted me, saying he threw his remote across the room when footage was shown of the Eagles selecting running back Michael Haddix with the No. 8 pick in 1983. A graphic scrolled across the screen during the film, explaining that Haddix had the lowest yards-per-carry average (3.0) in the history of the NFL.

To make matters worse, of the 20 players selected after Haddix in the first round that year, four went on to have Hall of Fame careers: Bruce Matthews, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Darrell Green.

So when the Eagles used the No. 4 pick last week on Lane Johnson, some fans couldn’t help but take a stroll down memory lane and ask: Did the Birds just take another Danny Watkins?

There is one primary reason to compare the two: experience.

If we look just at offensive line experience, Watkins actually had more than Johnson entering the league. He played two years at Butte (Junior) College and then two more at Baylor. Johnson, on the other hand, has a total of two years – both at Oklahoma. He had never played offensive tackle before in his life.

But there’s a little more to it than that. Watkins had never played football until 2007 when he was 23-years-old. He was 26 when he was drafted and asked to move from tackle to guard. He turns 29 in November and faces an uncertain future with the team that took him 23rd overall.

I went back and looked at some of the things written about Watkins when the Eagles drafted him. While most believed he was a really good prospect, this line from NFL.com’s scouting report stood out:

Raw football player that does not always recognize stunts and blitzes and can get caught out of position.

That’s a pretty good summation of his issues through two years in the NFL.

Johnson, meanwhile, turns 23 this month. He comes from a football town in East Texas. His stepdad coached at the high school level, and he’s been playing the game since he was a kid – just not always as an offensive lineman.

Johnson most notably played quarterback in high school and in junior college.

“When you’re a quarterback, you know where people are on the field,” Johnson said. “You know your protections and you know the defensive alignments. Now, playing tackle, it’s easier to see things and you have a greater appreciation for protecting the quarterback because I know how it feels to get sacked on your blind side when you obviously can’t see it.”

There’s also the issue of athleticism. Watkins was considered a good athlete, but Johnson is off the charts.

The site Mockdraftable.com has a terrific graphic showing Johnson’s measurables compared to other offensive tackles. He’s in the 96th percentile or higher in the 40-yard dash, the 10-yard dash, the 3-cone drill, the vertical jump and the broad jump. Those things don’t always translate to the field, but clearly, there are tools to work with.

The Eagles were able to watch tape on Johnson at both right tackle (junior year) and left tackle (senior year). Chip Kelly is friendly with Bob Stoops and was able to speak to him “extensively” about Johnson’s makeup and work habits.

All of this is to say there are differences between Johnson and Watkins as prospects. But it’s fair to acknowledge that Johnson is no slam dunk. Kelly admitted as much when he called Johnson “raw” last week and talked about his upside. His stock rose significantly after the season (Senior Bowl, Combine, etc.).

Part of the selection had to do with who else was available. Guys like Ziggy Ansah, Barkevious Mingo and Tavon Austin have their own question marks.

The Eagles evaluated the talent available and went with the guy they graded the highest. Now it’s up to the coaching staff to draw the most out of him. There’s always the chance that Johnson fails to meet expectations, but from this perspective, the thought process seems sound.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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