Boykin ready to start as Eagles' top nickel cornerback

Cornerback Brandon Boykin tries to knock the ball loose from Chad Hall during practice.
Cornerback Brandon Boykin tries to knock the ball loose from Chad Hall during practice. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 05, 2012

Brandon Boykin checked Twitter on Friday afternoon and noticed a stream of congratulatory messages. The Eagles rookie cornerback was confused.

He checked for news updates and saw that veteran Joselio Hanson had been released. Ten minutes later, Boykin's phone rang. It was Hanson, who shared the information and wished Boykin luck. They had a brief conversation, and Boykin embarked on a season as the Eagles top nickel cornerback.

The Eagles' decision to release Hanson, who spent six seasons in Philadelphia, cemented Boykin's status. Boykin was selected in the fourth round of April's draft with expectations of competing for the No. 3 cornerback spot, which is virtually a starting position because of the propensity of opposing teams utilizing three-receiver formations. Hanson played at least 58 percent of the snaps in the five games he was the No. 3 cornerback last season.

Hanson fought to keep the job throughout the offseason and preseason, but general manager Howie Roseman said Friday the decision to release Hanson had more to do with how Boykin played than anything Hanson did.

"We just felt like this was a move that Brandon was going to play for us," Roseman said. "He was eventually going to fill this role, and he had shown enough that he was ready to go right now."

Boykin said he could have arrived at training camp lacking urgency, conceding the nickel cornerback spot to Hanson and accepting his role as a backup and a kick returner. Instead, he stepped off the airport shuttle in July determined to win a job.

Hanson told Boykin that the Eagles acquired other players through the years to try to play nickel, and it took time for them to understand the responsibilities. Boykin said his objective since arriving in Philadelphia was not expressly to beat Hanson, but rather just to improve enough to force the coaches into a decision.

"I felt like I was getting better every game, not really saying, 'I played better than Joselio in this game,' " Boykin said.

Even after Hanson's phone call, the prominence of Boykin's new job did not sink in until Monday's practice. It was then, when he lined up with the starters, that he realized he would be a key player for the Eagles this season.

Unless a player has experience in the slot, there is often a ruthless transition.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a Pro Bowler in Arizona, struggled with the adjustment last season. The shorter distance between the quarterback and the receiver means the ball arrives quicker, and the cornerback must navigate through considerable traffic in the middle of the field.

Brandon Hughes, who also can play in the nickel for the Eagles, said it's "not overly difficult to learn," but a player must have a particular skill set to play the slot. Hughes said the player must stay cognizant where the help is from the safeties and where the other cornerbacks align.

Boykin is unlike many rookies trying to play nickel cornerback because it's where he starred at Georgia. Most top college cornerback play on the outside, so there's an adjustment when arriving in the NFL. Boykin was aided by his experience playing inside and having a skill set that ideally suits the position's requirements.

"I'm a quick guy, I'm pretty strong for my size, and I have a good enough vertical to compete with people no matter where the ball's thrown," Boykin said.

The new responsibilities increase Boykin's value to the team. As the top kick returner, he was already going to play an important role on game days. But now that he's a vital part of the Eagles defense, the team is banking on Boykin quickly adjusting to the NFL.

"Athletically wise, ability wise, I can play with anybody," Boykin said. "But the experience is something you can't just get right away. It's going to take being thrown in that fire and doing it each and every game."

Contact Zach Berman at or follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

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