Watkins pick in character for Eagles

Baylor guard Danny Watkins, 26, has taken a slightly different route to the NFL. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

The lights were on all through the NovaCare Complex early Thursday night. They were on in the war room where the Eagles' player personnel brain trust readied another deep-thinking assault on the college draft, and, for a change, they were turned on in locker room, too, as Andy Reid fluffed the towels and made sure everything looked nice for the players who might wander in soon.

One of the guys who will be stopping by very soon is Danny Watkins, a 26-year-old with more experience at fire protection than pass protection. A native of British Columbia, Watkins played hockey and rugby growing up and worked five years as a fireman before heading to a California junior college to study fire science.

There's no record on how he did with the classes, but the football coach liked the looks of him just fine and two years later he found himself playing Division I for Baylor. The end of that improbable story, and the start of a new one, culminated in the first round of the NFL draft when the Eagles took him with the 23d pick.

"We hoped he would be there," Reid said. "He's got a toughness and a blue-collar attitude. Being a fireman delayed his football career. His body hasn't gone through the beating up process."

Obviously, Reid isn't familiar with the sports of hockey and rugby. But, anyway, it was such an exciting day for Watkins, no one had the heart to tell him the Eagles get rid of players when they turn 30. That gives him at least three good years with the team, though, and maybe he can be the guy who breaks the pattern.

The Eagles have never been afraid to take a slightly different track with the draft and selecting Watkins is in character. It was kind of a strange day overall for the NFL, even by the league's recent standards. The first round of the draft coincided with the league's decision to comply with a court order and at least temporarily lift the lockout. The players under contract can return to their place of employment Friday, although it is unlikely that many will. They won't start getting paid for their workouts at the complex until Monday, and, well, principles are one thing, but that $130 is another.

As before, teams couldn't trade players during the draft - only draft picks - and any hope they had to land an extra first-round pick for quarterback Kevin Kolb had become a lost opportunity.

"We know the people who were interested before. . . . We know where we left off," Reid said.

That is as much certainty as there is, however. The players who return Friday might not even be back for long. The legal fights have many more rounds left to go and the NFL has to win one eventually. Maybe it will come from the National Labor Relations Board, which still has to determine if the players association was only pretending when it said it wasn't a union anymore. Maybe it will come from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, a three-person panel that could trump Judge Susan Richard Nelson's ruling that the league's argument for the lockout had more holes than the Eagles' run defense.

The league could use a win any time now. It's no fun to have the commissioner booed at the draft. It's no fun to have a premier event overshadowed by labor hassles and the threat of no season at all. The NFL has trotted out its high-priced lawyers, tried its arguments, and failed more important tests than Jimmy Smith.

All of it makes for breathless reporting and an interesting sideshow, but none of it does anything to bring a new collective bargaining agreement closer to reality. That will take meaningful negotiation sessions and, aside from the dog-and-pony meetings done to satisfy a federal arbitrator, neither side is bothering to concentrate on that.

The players are banking their biggest hopes on winning the antitrust suit filed with Tom Brady and Drew Brees as the figurehead complainants, but that's a tough fish to land, and the timetable for that one, also to be heard by the Eighth Circuit, could extend into July.

Everything before that is just rubbernecking at the wreck by the side of the road, even if the players will be getting paid to lift weights and watch film in the interim. It doesn't get a new contract and without a new contract, there isn't going to be a new season.

The league will announce guidelines Friday on the rules for player movement - free-agent signings, trades, tryouts - but the draft won't be affected. Given that, teams went back to the old method of simply figuring out the best player available.

The Eagles went to the old method in more ways than one.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/bob_fords_post_patterns/