Boykin paying off big as a nickel cornerback

Brandon Boykin's interception in the end zone Sunday sealed the win against the Redskins.
Brandon Boykin's interception in the end zone Sunday sealed the win against the Redskins. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: November 22, 2013

Brandon Boykin has become too valuable to the Eagles for him to be an every-down defensive player, a contradiction that will continue throughout the season. Boykin, a second-year cornerback who leads the Eagles with four interceptions, has been one of the defense's top players through 11 games.

But his work has come almost exclusively as the nickel cornerback, a position that defensive coordinator Bill Davis considers a starting spot even if it is not in the base defense. It is difficult to play the slot and difficult to find players who can capably fill that role. So the Eagles have been reluctant to play Boykin as an outside cornerback, where he'd be on the field for every play.

Boykin has played 56 percent of the defensive snaps this season. When playing teams that don't often field three wide receivers, such as Washington last Sunday, Boykin is often relegated to the sideline. He played just 31 percent of the snaps.

It was a big topic going into the season, but the Eagles have mostly been unyielding in their stance on how and where to play Boykin.

Asked this week what his statistics would be if he played 40 percent more of the snaps, Boykin couldn't help but laugh. He understands his role but has not been shy about his desire - and ability - to be a full-time cornerback.

"When you're on the field more, you make more plays, or you should, if you get more opportunities," Boykin said. "I just want to try to make my plays, because I know my reps."

The Boykin-on-the-bench angle has been even more apparent during the last two weeks, when starting cornerback Bradley Fletcher has been absent with a pectoral injury. Boykin has remained in the slot, with backup Roc Carmichael on the outside.

The Eagles kept their base defense on the field for the majority of both games, meaning Boykin spent more time watching than playing. Yet he also recorded key interceptions in both games.

"I need Boykin to be a great nickel, and I felt, and we feel as a staff, that it lessens his ability to play nickel if he's playing corner and nickel every down both inside and outside," Davis said last week. "A nickel is a starting position for this defense, and I wanted Boykin to be great at it."

Davis mentioned the importance of third downs and two-minute defense, when the nickel back is often on the field. Davis did not want to jeopardize those downs by moving Boykin around, and coach Chip Kelly said the differences in the positions are akin to inside linebacker and outside linebacker.

Fletcher also missed the Week 2 game against San Diego, and Boykin played on the outside and took nearly every defensive snap. The three cornerbacks behind him on the roster that day are no longer with the team, which shows how difficult slot cornerbacks are to find.

"When you have someone in there that is really a starter for you, is as talented as Brandon, I think it's a big plus," Kelly said. "It's probably an underappreciated position being a slot corner and how integral that is to being a successful football team."

The Eagles sought big, physical cornerbacks after they hired Kelly. But many effective slot cornerbacks are often shorter and shiftier, able to move quickly in space and change directions without issue. There are also run-support responsibilities. Safety Nate Allen compared the position to a safety-cornerback hybrid.

Boykin is listed at 5-foot-10 (he measured 5-9 at the 2012 combine), but his vertical leap exceeds 40 inches. He has insisted since he arrived in Philadelphia that he can play on the outside, and that his height is not a detriment.

His interception in Sunday's game might have come off of a poor pass by Robert Griffin III, but it sealed an Eagles victory. The week before against Green Bay, Boykin prevented a touchdown by jumping a route in the end zone, picking off the ball, and returning it 76 yards into field-goal range. The interception that Boykin was most pleased with came when he wrestled a pass away from Giants receiver Victor Cruz in an Oct. 6 victory.

"I didn't expect to pick it," Boykin said. "I just expected to bat it down."

Boykin did not record an interception as a rookie. He already has more solo tackles (37) than he did last season.

He is one of the defense's best players, even if it's not as an every-down player. More experience and other options in the secondary might allow Boykin to play on the outside at some point in his career. But expect to see Boykin remain in the slot this season.

"If we're three, four years down the road and Boykin has all the experience in the world, I'll bounce him in and out," Davis said. "But right now . . . the best growth for the defense is to have him compartmentalized at the nickel spot."

Jones' special effort

Eagles punter Donnie Jones was NFC special-teams player of the week after averaging 50.7 yards per punt against the Redskins, including four punts inside the 20-yard line. He's the second Eagles punter to win the award; Sean Landeta was the other.


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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