“I’m just trying to come out here and do my job,” the 30-year-old Hanson said Tuesday after the Eagles’ first OTA workout of the spring. “I feel I’m still the best nickel on the team.
“I continue to grow. I’m still not at the max of my mental ability to play this game, play this defense. I’m in the mental prime of my career. Not a lot of things confuse me out there.”
Hanson was signed by the Eagles out of NFL Europe in 2006, a 5-9, 185-pound afterthought who, by his own admission, didn’t think he had a chance in hell of making the team.
And maybe if somebody other than Jim Johnson had been the Eagles’ defensive coordinator at the time, he wouldn’t have made it. But Johnson saw something in Hanson. Saw a guy who maybe didn’t have the elite top-end speed to excel on the outside, but had the short-area quickness, the change-of-direction skills, the physicality and the smarts to be a very good slot corner.
“Jim really made me who I am,” Hanson said. “A lot of teams at the time weren’t big on putting small guys in the slot. But Jim felt I could do it. I feel like I changed the game. Teams started drafting smaller guys to play inside.”
Under Johnson’s tutelage, Hanson developed into one of the league’s better nickel corners. The Eagles thought enough of him to sign him to a 5-year, $21 million deal 3 years ago when he was about to become a free agent.
But he became the odd man out last summer after the Eagles brought in Pro Bowlers Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie to join four-time Pro Bowler Asante Samuel. With Hanson scheduled to make $1.8 million in 2011, the Eagles released him in early September, then re-signed him 3 days later for considerably less money.
Hanson spent the first nine games of the season as the team’s fourth corner while new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo struggled mightily to find a way to effectively use Samuel, Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie at the same time. He would’ve had better luck trying to split an atom.
Castillo tried using both Asomugha and DRC in the slot, but neither was suited for the job. The Eagles gave up 17 touchdown passes in those first nine games.
When Rodgers-Cromartie injured his ankle in the ninth game, Hanson moved back to nickel and the defense suddenly improved. In Hanson’s first game back as the nickel corner, the Eagles beat the Giants, 17-10, and held Eli Manning to 18 completions in 35 attempts.
The Eagles won five of their last seven games with Hanson playing inside, allowing 10 points or fewer and 200 passing yards or fewer in four of those seven games.
“Last year was difficult,” Hanson said. “But I felt like I proved a point to them. You can’t just put anybody inside. It’s a totally different position. When I got in there for good in the second half of the season, we ran off some wins. That was a good feeling.”
Hanson said playing nickel in the Eagles’ scheme is a bit more complicated than playing nickel in a lot of other defenses in the league.
“A lot of people play nickel in the league, but they don’t play the same position I play,” he said. “They don’t have the same responsibilities that I have. A lot of nickels around the league, they can just sit back and read the quarterback and react. Here, you have to do a lot of reading, communicating. I’m reading the [running] back. If the back goes this way, I’ve got to do this. If he goes that way, I’ve got to do that. It’s a lot more thinking than some other schemes.”
If Boykin needs any mentoring this spring and summer, he might not want to hold his breath waiting for Hanson to help him. Hanson said he was told by one of the defensive coaches that the nickel job is not his to lose. It’s up for grabs among him and Boykin and Brandon Hughes. May the best man win.
“I was told I was competing [for the job],” he said. “If they said we weren’t competing, then maybe I would mentor [him]. But when it’s competition, hey, it’s every man for himself.”
Hanson will turn 31 in August, but said he’s in the best shape of his life. He started working with a personal trainer — former Arizona State football player Darren Willis — during last year’s lockout and has been working with him again this offseason. He appears to have added some muscle to his frame.
“I’m working a lot harder now than maybe when I was younger,” he said. “I feel good. I feel faster and quicker than ever.”
Hanson knows the Eagles probably would prefer to see Boykin beat him out for the nickel job. Boykin is younger. And he is cheaper. But that only makes him more determined to win the job.
“I’ve been competing [for a job] every year since I’ve been in the league,” he said. “That’s just the way it is in the NFL. I’m ready.”
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