Watkins, Powell, Halapio find out NFL destinations
Published: Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 4:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 9:31 p.m.
The Florida cornerback who returned for his senior season ended up getting drafted ahead of the two who made the critical, now questionable, decisions to leave school early.
On the strength of his versatility and strong workout numbers, Jaylen Watkins was the first Gator — and first UF corner — off the board Saturday, selected by the Philadelphia Eagles with the first pick in the fourth round of the NFL draft.
“It’s a great feeling,” Watkins said. “I’m very excited.”
It was a much different kind of day for junior UF corners Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy. Considered possible early round picks a few months ago, they mysteriously fell completely out of the draft and will have to try and go the free-agent route to pro ball.
They were not among the 35 cornerbacks drafted.
Two other Gators were drafted Saturday. Outside linebacker Ronald Powell was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the fifth round, while offensive guard Jon Halapio was taken in the sixth round by New England, the same team that drafted UF defensive tackle Dominique Easley in the first round Thursday.
In all, four Gators were selected in the three-day draft. Eight were drafted a year ago.
Watkins, the 101st overall selection, was rated the third-best UF corner in early draft evaluations, but obviously pulled ahead of Roberson and Purifoy in a big way with his performance in workouts and interviews with NFL teams.
Roberson and Purifoy hurt their chances by running identical poor 40-yard dashes at the NFL Combine and in workouts (4.61 seconds). Purifoy also had some issues off the field that obviously were a huge factor.
While Roberson and Purifoy saw their stock plummet during the draft process, Watkins saw his rise — and that’s why he was the first (and only) Gator corner off the board.
He said he woke up with a positive vibe about the Eagles on Saturday morning.
“I’d been watching all the Eagles’ picks and I felt good about my chances of going to Philadelphia (to open the fourth round),” he said. “It was a big feeling for me that (it would happen). My visit went well. I felt great about them, and they felt great about me. I woke up this morning and said, ‘OK, this has got to be it.’ Then they called me right before (the pick was made).”
Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly said there is a lot to like about Watkins, especially his versatility and football IQ.
“Very versatile, extremely high football intelligence,” Kelly said. “(Defensive coordinator) Billy Davis was at his Pro Day, spent a lot of time with him there, and we had him here for an interview.
“He’s played safety, he’s played corner, he’s played nickel. Obviously, he’s got the speed to play corner. Sometimes when you draft a guy you project that maybe he can be this.
“Obviously, there’s evidence of him playing safety and doing it at a really high level. He could be the quarterback of the defense because of his football intelligence.”
Kelly said Watkins will get a look at both cornerback and safety during mini-camps and training camp this summer before a decision is made on where he’ll play.”
Kelly said the Eagles went to bed Friday night planning to make Watkins the first pick in the fourth round Saturday.
“We thought that versatility, football character, football intelligence part of it, he was a really good value, especially today,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy we were really excited about (Friday) night. We knew if we didn’t get a good offer we were going to stay there and take Jaylen.”
Early in the draft process, most of the analysts were projecting Watkins to be the third Gator corner drafted, behind Roberson and Purifoy. But Watkins caught everyone’s attention (and moved up) with his performance at the combine and UF’s Pro Day.
At the combine, Watkins ran the 40 in 4.41 seconds and was one of the strongest defensive backs with 22 reps at 225 pounds in the bench press.
A starting corner in his junior season, he made the move to safety this past season for the Gators. Kelly said the Eagles will work him at both positions this summer.
“I’m most comfortable at corner, but whatever the coaches ask me to do, I know I can do it,” Watkins said. “I played corner, nickel, safety, even a little dime at Florida, so wherever they need me.”
Watkins said playing at Florida has prepared him for the NFL.
“The mental aspect of the game definitely rises,” he said. “But that’s one thing we did at Florida really well. Our coaches put a lot on our plate, and it kind of prepares you for the next level.”
The second Gator off the board Saturday was Powell, who was scooped up by the Saints with the 29th pick in the fifth round.
Powell had a solid junior season in 2013 after returning from two ACL surgeries within a year that sidelined him for the 2012 season.
“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” Powell said. “My ultimate goal was to get to the next level. Football is not just a game to me, it is a lifestyle.
“I feel like I am going to be a great fit for (the Saints). ... I am a passionate guy when it comes to this game and I like the defensive mindset that they have in New Orleans. I am just happy to be a New Orleans Saint.”
Halapio was feeling the same way about having an opportunity to play for the Patriots, who selected him with the third pick in the sixth round.
“Relieved. I’m very relieved. Very excited and happy,” Halapio said. “It’s just a very exciting time for me right now. I’m really glad I got that phone call.”
Halapio said he’s excited about remaining teammates with Easley in New England.
“I love the guy and I’m sure he’s just as excited as I am, and we’re both ready to go to work,” Halapio said. “He makes me a lot better as a football player. He’s a very talented dude, and we are both excited to contribute to the New England Patriots.
“We are coming in humbled. We are very coachable, so we are ready to be coached and pay our respects and dues to the team and contribute.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or email@example.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.