You can make the argument that Brandon Boykin is the Eagles best defensive back. He has twice as many interceptions as any player (4 to 2). He is tied for the team lead in forced fumbles. Boykin is second in pass deflections, despite having less passes come his way.
Go beyond the numbers. Two of Boykin's interceptions have come in the end zone. One of his forced fumbles came inside the 10-yard line. This is a guy that makes clutch plays. Go re-watch the first game against the Giants and you'll see Boykin play terrific defense on Victor Cruz.
So if Boykin is so great, why is he just the nickel corner?
Bradley Fletcher missed a couple of recent starts and Roc Carmichael took his place. Carmichael was on the field more than Boykin, despite being a lesser player. This would seem to defy logic. Are Bill Davis and Chip Kelly nuts?
No. They have a reason they are doing this. Davis has talked quite a bit about Boykin and the fact that the coaches want him to master the nickel spot rather than shuttling him between there and the outside. I fully get this.
Playing the nickel corner position is tough. Very tough. Joselio Hanson manned that spot for the Eagles from 2006-2011. He mastered the slot. But Hanson will tell you it takes a couple of years before a player can really get a grasp on the position.
Cornerbacks who play outside have an easier time of it. They can use the sideline as a defender. They generally have safety help. Those corners do face faster receivers, but they also are further away from the quarterback and that added distance also helps them out. Outside corners play in space. They have one receiver to read. If they study the opponent thoroughly, they should have a good idea of what is going to happen.
Nickel corners play in traffic. They interact with linebackers more than they do other defensive backs. Slot receivers have a 2-way go on their routes. That means they can go inside or out. Receivers on the perimeter are limited by the sideline. Nickel corners must master a whole other set of movement skills and coverage techniques than someone who plays on the outside.
Slot receivers stay close to the quarterback a lot so that means the ball won't be in the air long. Outside corners can use recovery speed to make plays. Nickel corners don't have that luxury. They must cover tightly. That is tricky because slot receivers are usually very quick, elusive players. And nickel corners can't always rely on tape study to help since slot receivers often have options on pass plays. That means the slot receiver will read the defense and decide to go in or out based on what he sees on that particular play.
Photo credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
If Davis had Boykin going back and forth from nickel to outside corner, you can see where that would put a lot of pressure on Boykin. Those really are two different positions. Boykin is only in his second year. He's learning a new scheme and dealing with new coaches. That itself is a lot for a young guy to deal with.
Davis and Kelly see Boykin as someone with special potential. He could be a great nickel corner. In time, he also might be able to play outside. For now, they are letting him develop where they think he can be an impact player. They aren't punishing Boykin for anything he's done. They see him as a valuable player and don't want to ruin that. On the outside, Boykin isn't anything special. They can work on developing those skills down the road.
Kelly and Davis have made the right call with developing young players so far. They mixed in Earl Wolff aggressively and he's done well. They mixed in Bennie Logan on a regular basis and he's now the starting nose tackle and playing very well. They were tough on Vinny Curry, but the light has gone on for him and he's playing well. I don't think you can argue with those results.
I thought Boykin would be a perfect fit for the Eagles prior to the 2012 draft. He was a guy that played the slot and outside in college. He was a gifted return man. Boykin would hit and tackle. He had an NFL body. While only 5-9, 183, Boykin's muscles had muscles. He was also a very high character guy. The only reason he fell to the 4th round is due to injury concerns with a foot. Boykin has been healthy as an Eagle and is playing good football.
While Boykin did play the nickel spot as a senior at Georgia, that is nothing like the NFL. He showed the physical skills to play the inside, but he didn't have to face the same kind of route combinations and complex pass plays that you do in the NFL. That experience was good for Boykin, but he's still got plenty to learn to master the nickel spot in the NFL.
I know it is frustrating to see Boykin sitting while a guy like Carmichael is out at corner, but there really is logic to what the coaches are doing. So far, the results are pretty darn good.