Some may say Brandon Boykin already broke out in 2013, but he's poised for national recognition in 2014. The second-year cornerback thrived in a nickel role, finishing with six interceptions. He's a top athlete with a ridiculous vertical leap.
He was extremely dependable when it mattered the most, coming up with game-clinching turnovers against both the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys (video), plus a pick-six against the Chicago Bears.
A case can be made that he was the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive MVP. Among cornerbacks, only Richard Sherman finished with more interceptions. Remarkably, all six of Boykin’s interceptions came when he was lined up against the slot receiver, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). No other cornerback had more than three picks when playing in the slot.
Pro Football Focus graded Boykin extremely well, rating him as the second-best corner in pass coverage. Boykin even tackled efficiently, missing just two tackles out of his 44 attempts.
Per Pro Football Reference, Boykin was the 24th cornerback since the NFL-AFL merger to register at least six interceptions and a touchdown in his first or second season in the league. Of those cornerbacks, Boykin was tied for the fewest number of games started (2).
Yet despite that success, defensive coordinator Billy Davis has insisted he prefers Boykin in the slot role. This is a spot in which the 5’9” cornerback will continue to match up with speedier, undersized receivers, as he did all of last year. Secondary coach John Lovett says Boykin can get exposed on the outside due to his lack of size.
Boykin certainly will thrive in this role again, as he did last year. But look for Boykin to push incumbent starters Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher for playing time on the outside. Boykin sees himself as much more than a slot corner.
Williams and Fletcher aren’t the long-term future of this secondary. Williams’ $8.1 million cap hit for 2015 suggests he’s entering his final season with the team (per spotrac), unless he takes a significant pay cut. Fletcher is a free agent after the season. Free-agent signee Nolan Carroll may be an underrated pickup, but he’s likely a stopgap.
Boykin’s interception to close out the season in Week 17 earned him the spotlight, but his finest play of that game occurred earlier in the third quarter. Boykin was guarding Pro Bowl receiver Dez Bryant one-on-one. Kyle Orton floated up a pass to the end zone, and Boykin—with no safety help nearby—expertly batted the ball down to preserve a narrow Philly lead.
The Eagles ended up winning by two points, capped off when Boykin stepped in front of an ill-advised Orton pass for his sixth and final interception of the season.
Imagine how much more effective Boykin could be playing regularly. He’s too good to be used solely on passing downs. After all, it’s not as if he was a liability in the running game—he finished with one of the highest tackle rates in the league.
After playing just 635 snaps as a second-year player, look for Boykin to see action in at least 900 this year. That would make him one of the more heavily used cornerbacks in the game, but it’s fitting seeing as how well he played in ’13. The Eagles need to see that Boykin has the ability to play outside so he can be used exclusively in this role in the future.
The Eagles defense will need continued improvement from their young players. Fletcher Cox is a blossoming star. Mychal Kendricks was a turnover machine down the stretch, registering takeaway after takeaway. Earl Wolff has potential as a starting safety. But Boykin may be the key to improving a pass defense that ranked 32nd a year ago.
If he can build upon his numbers from last year, this secondary will be much tougher. And if the defense can at least muster up average statistics, the offense may be potent enough for a deep playoff run.