Boykin can't overcome tall order

Posted: June 19, 2014

In the mid-1990s, the Eagles had a cornerback named Mark McMillian, a wee thing who didn't cover wide receivers as much as he snapped at their ankles. McMillian was 5-foot-7 and 154 pounds and still started 47 games for the Eagles.

It was a sight to see when he lined up on the outside against one of the Dallas Cowboys' starting receivers then, the 6-2 Michael Irvin and the 6-3 Alvin Harper, but he held his own, and the Eagles even won a playoff game with him in the starting lineup.

A lot has changed in the NFL since then, including this truth: Mark McMillian probably couldn't play for Chip Kelly, at least not as an outside cornerback, and the evidence came jogging off the NovaCare Complex practice field Tuesday, soaked in sweat.

Brandon Boykin is listed on the Eagles' official roster at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, though after Tuesday's minicamp session, held in blinding sun and 90-degree heat, he's probably closer to 180 pounds at the moment. He was second in the league in interceptions last season with six - the last of which sealed a victory over the Cowboys, and the NFC East title, in the Eagles' final game.

Boykin spent most of last season as the Eagles' slot cornerback, and because he played so well there, people often ask whether he'd rather play on the outside or whether the Eagles plan to move him there.

"A million times this offseason," Boykin said.

People should stop asking, not because Boykin is tired of the questions but because there's no point to them. Unless one of the Eagles' starting cornerbacks, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, gets hurt, Boykin is staying in the slot. He's pretty much stuck there, in what's perceived to be a less-prestigious role, and it has nothing to do with his talent or his speed or his work ethic. It has to do with his size and the Eagles' defense, and the realities of the present-day NFL.

"Let's put it this way: There are a lot more power forwards outside than there were 10 years ago," Eagles defensive backs coach John Lovett said. "It used to be that a 6-foot receiver was a big guy. Now, that's not the case. A 6-foot receiver is small."

Which might as well make Boykin a native of Lilliput. In 2012, for instance, the 10 receivers with the highest yardage totals averaged 6-2 and 218 pounds, and that disparity in length and heft, according to Lovett, will put the Eagles at a disadvantage over a full season if Boykin is on the outside, jostling with receivers in the open areas of the field instead of in the closer quarters of the slot position.

"Brandon's a tremendous athlete," Lovett said. "Brandon's shortcoming is basically his size, and again, outside, that will get exposed. It's not about him going out and covering a guy for one play or five plays. It's over the long haul."

Kelly and his coaches made this decision after examining, in some depth, the question of how to build a quality secondary in a 3-4 defense - the scheme that coordinator Bill Davis prefers. Not long after the Eagles hired them, Kelly and his assistants studied four teams that used a 3-4: the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New England Patriots, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Washington Redskins.

Those first three defenses have been among the NFL's best over the last 15 years, and as part of their study, the Eagles examined the average heights and weights for those teams' players relative to the players' positions. The shared physical characteristics among the cornerbacks and safeties were obvious, and the Eagles use those teams' philosophies as a template for their defense, as if the players aren't human beings as much as they are machines that have to meet certain industry specifications.

"Football is a game of chess; the only difference is all 22 pieces move at once," assistant defensive backs coach Todd Lyght said. "[If] you've got Brandon Boykin on the edge, trying to stop a 300-pound lineman on a sweep play, that's tough duty. . . .

"Some guys think of themselves only as cover corners. Well, if you're just a cover corner, you can't play for the Philadelphia Eagles. You have to be able to hit and cover. Asante Samuel was a great player in this organization for a long time, but he really wasn't noted for his tackling. If you can't tackle, you're not going to play for us."

Brandon Boykin can tackle, and he can cover, and he disagrees that his size should limit his versatility within the defense.

"If you look at the draft every year, there are always guys getting drafted in the first round who are 5-9, 5-10," he said. "It just matters where your playing style fits better."

In another era of the NFL, it would have fit on the outside. Here, now, it fits in the slot. He'll just have to get used to it.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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