When Darren Woodson, the Dallas Cowboys long time starting safety and franchise leader in tackles, was forced to retire due to injury in 2004, the Cowboys started a search for the right safety to play opposite Pro Bowler Roy Williams. In 2006, the Cowboys drafted Patrick Watkins in the fifth round with the hope he could develop into the starting free safety. Like most players that make it to the NFL, he was a standout athlete in high school and went to college as one of the top ranked prospects in the country. At Florida State, he developed into one of the premier free safeties in the nation and consistently finished at or near the top in the ACC in both tackles and interceptions. Watkins always seemed to save his best for the big games, including 10 tackles in the Orange Bowl against Penn State.
As he finished his senior season and prepared for the draft, Watkins was rated a mid-round prospect. His athleticism and size were ideal for a free safety but it was thought that he lacked premier cover and pass recognition skills. Looking at tape, scouts believed that his speed and ball skills allowed for him to cover a lot of ground and make up for mistakes in pass coverage. Scouts seemed to fear that this would not be the case once he made the transition to the NFL and faced superior receivers than those he saw in college.
Even though Watkins was a rookie, it was apparent early on that he would be given every opportunity to claim the starting free safety position. Keith Davis was in the dog house with coach Bill Parcells after being involved in a shooting and safety Marcus Coleman was suspended for substance abuse; this led to Watkins starting the last three pre-season games at free safety and making a good impression with coach Parcells. It was announced prior to opening day in 2006 that the rookie would be the Cowboys new starting safety. Immediately things started to go sour.
Watkins' inexperience in the NFL and his lack of awareness in pass defense would make him a very inconsistent player on the football field. At times he would flash some outstanding athleticism while making a play on the ball, but more often than not he was out of position and getting beat. In week five against Philadelphia he was beat deep twice in a close game, the second an 87 yard touchdown pass. After numerous mistakes, Parcells not only benched the rookie, he deactivated him from the game day roster. The coach believed that the benching would serve as a wake up call to Watkins and would teach him to work harder in practice. After two games off Watkins was reactivated and while he didn't start, he did start to make a name for himself on special teams. Watkins started the final three games of the season, and this time showed a marked improvement in pass coverage.
While Watkins showed that he had grown as a safety his rookie season, the Cowboys realized that it would take longer for him todevelop than originally planned. During free agency in 2007, the Cowboys signed Ken Hamlin to a one year contract. Hamlin stepped in and became the premier free safety the Cowboys had been seeking while at the same time taking the pressure off Watkins. He was now free to learn his position and progress at a reasonable pace without being thrust into the starting role. He also had the chance to play with one of the league's best cover safeties, something he was not able to do his rookie season.
With Ken Hamlin and Roy Williams starting ahead of him, Watkins received less chances on the field in 2007 than he did his rookie campaign. He used his limited opportunities to establish himself as the team's top player on special teams, leading the team in special teams tackles when the season was over. He also had one of the top plays of the year for the Cowboys when he returned a block field goal for a touchdown against Minnesota.
As the season progressed the coaching staff used Watkins more and more on defense. The team focused on moving Roy Williams down into the box which opened up the door for Watkins to step in as safety on passing downs. While he was far from perfect, gone were the blatant blown plays that led to long touchdowns like in his rookie year. His confidence was bolstered by big plays on special teams, something that bled over to his play on defense. His rookie season he was essentially thrown to the wolves with hardly a supporting cast to help him out. He was expected to be the last resort on defense and when he couldn't live up to that expectation he was benched. But his second year he was given the room to grow as a football player and learn the game without being rushed onto the field.
This offseason the Cowboys have bolstered most of the weaknesses that caused the team to fall short in the playoffs. The one position of uncertainty on the defense now is safety. Roy Williams is being blasted from all directions and has admitted a lack of confidence in himself. The defensive coordinator has acknowledged that Williams has shortcomings in pass defense that need to be protected by the right scheme and a good free safety. Unfortunately the Cowboys other Pro Bowl safety, Ken Hamlin, has decided to sit out offseason workouts as he and the team work on a long term deal. There has even been discussions about Anthony Henry moving to safety to help out with depth and expereince at the position.
Patrick Watkins needs to take advantage of this situation and shine during the offseason. If he is able to show that he has improved his play enough the Cowboys might not be as strapped at safety as it might seem at first. If he is able to show growth and experience as a free safety it would allow the Cowboys to move Ken Hamlin to strong safety and and keep Anthony Henry at cornerback. This would also give the team the ability to move Roy Williams anywhere they need to in order to maximize his strengths. It all depends on Watkins and his ability to show he is capable of stepping back into the starting role.
As the Cowboys prepare for a Super Bowl run in 2008, the need Patrick Watkins to be the best player he is capable of being. The depth and versatilty of the defense depends on his ability to take on a bigger responsibility as a safety, something that would open up an infinite amount of options for the Cowboys.