Guard Earl Watford (78) looks to make a block during a preseason game in Denver last year.
Every step of the way, Earl Watford has been labeled a raw prospect. In high school and college, he shook that moniker and became a dominant force.
After a year in the background, the Cardinals' offensive guard is reaching a similar NFL crossroads. He's intent on proving his worth.
"I'm not here to sit on the sidelines," Watford said.
Watford didn't start playing organized football until his junior year of high school, but earned all-city honors in Philadelphia as a senior. Following a light recruitment, he headed to FCS (formerly I-AA) school James Madison University to play defense. After redshirting in 2008, Watford was moved to the offensive line, where he subsequently flourished in his four seasons with the Dukes.
Watford graded out well enough in the 2013 pre-draft process that the Cardinals spent a fourth-round pick on him despite
choosing fellow guard Jonathan Cooper in the first round. But when he arrived in Arizona, it was clear Watford was not yet ready for a prominent role. He was active for only three games last season, and did not play a snap.
"I remember getting that playbook," Watford said. "My eyes were wide. It was like, 'Oh my goodness. This is a lot.' A lot of the older guys said, 'It's going to come. Don't worry. It'll come.' But I was like, 'It hasn't come yet.' And then one day, it was just" -- Watford snaps his fingers – "I knew it. As the season progressed, I didn't play, but I was still there and I learned a lot. I kept building on everything, and finally it was like, 'Now I've got it.'"
Watford is confident in the strides he's made. Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin also sees the untapped potential, and believes Watford is fast enough, strong enough and agile enough to handle defensive fronts in the NFL. However, he's not yet sold on Watford's mental progress.
"From a physical aspect, he's probably one of the better guys we've got, just as a total athlete from top to bottom," Goodwin said. "We've got these evaluation sheets for kids coming out now, and he is always going to read out pretty well. I don't worry about the physical tools on him at all. In pass protection he's solid. If he gets his hands on guys, he's solid.
"It's all mental for Earl. He's coming along. He's just got to pick it up some. He's got to. It's the NFL. It stands for Not For Long. For Earl, (this season) is big. To me, in my mind, it's make-or-break from the standpoint of, you've got talent, but now it's about trying to take the next step. And once again, if you can't do it, we've got to go to the next guy.
"Talent is not the issue. It's maintaining the information he's learned. When he started here, there was some regurgitation. If we have to start all over again from ground zero, it's not good."
Goodwin doesn't blame Watford for the slow start. Around the country, college coaches have simplified their blocking schemes to go at a faster pace. Pro-style offenses like Stanford and Alabama are few and far between, and it's putting the offensive linemen at a disadvantage when they enter the league. James Madison used a run-oriented spread option attack when Watford was there.
"The problem is, they come from a college system where all they do is run zone left, zone right, zone left, zone right," Goodwin said. "Well, we're going to run the zone, we're going to run power, we're going to run a double, we're going to run a counter. It's just multitudes of new schemes he's never heard of or saw before in his life. Now he's got to learn them and keep most in his head for any single day or game. That's the biggest thing. It's not that he's not capable."
There's plenty of motivation for Watford. While Cooper is pegged to start at left guard this year, the right side is up for grabs. Veteran Daryn Colledge was released in early March, giving Watford a legitimate shot at the starting lineup.
Unless the team adds another player in free agency or the draft, his main competition will be incumbent Paul Fanaika and free agent addition Ted Larsen. The Cardinals would like to be able to plug in their former fourth-round pick.
"They say coaches choose who play, but it's really the player who determines if he plays or not," Watford said. "I guess I was not the best player to be out there (last season), but that's kind of how it went. I learned from things and it was a process. This season will be different. I'm putting in the work mentally and physically."
Watford is a regular inside the Cardinals' training facility, fine-tuning his mind and body for the upcoming offseason workouts. After finishing an interview last week, he was asked if his work day was over. No, he said. Next up was a dip in the cold tub. Then it was back to studying the playbook.
"It's the NFL," Watford said. "They don't have time to wait on you. You've got to be ready when it's time."