Every year we construct our list of the Top 101 players in the NFL and every year players lose out in the numbers game and get squeezed off the bottom of the list. That process was especially difficult this year as after the Top 20 or so players separated themselves there was a vast swathe all deserving of credit with largely comparable seasons.
One of the victims of that squeeze this season was the Philadelphia Eagles’ slot corner Brandon Boykin, our highest-graded corner in coverage this season.
One of the most targeted corners in the league last season (on a per snap bases) Boykin wasn’t particularly spectacular by any basic or advanced yardage metric, but what he did do was make plays on the ball with extreme regularity which saw him grade extremely well and surrender a low passer rating.
As a sub-package corner, Boykin’s opportunities to make plays were limited, but that didn’t stop him from being among the league leaders in both interceptions and pass defenses, ahead of corners who played in both base defenses and sub packages.
Plays on the Ball
In fact, as a rate only Dre Kirkpatrick and Brandon Browner — who each played far fewer snaps — intercepted or disrupted (pass defenses and interceptions) passes more often than Boykin. Playing all 17 games for the Eagles last season Boykin registered an interception or pass defense in all but six of those games, notching both an interception and pass defense four times including in the two victories that clinched the NFC East title for the Eagles.
Making plays on the ball and turning those into big plays was the order of the day for Boykin this season, converting breaks on the ball into interceptions, converting those interceptions into touchdowns or even ripping the ball out of a receiver’s hands to force a fumble after a completed pass.
Even at the start of the season where he surrendered a quarter of his catches and yards in the first two games of the season (13/20, 165yds, 1 TD) the balance with the big play was already there. In the opening Monday Night game he contributed a big play midway through the first quarter that fed into the momentum that saw Chip Kelly’s tenure with the Eagles begin with a bang. Tracking Santana Moss from the left slot, Boykin stayed easily underneath Moss the whole way on a post route turning his head to locate the ball and comfortably pick off an ill-advised pass from Robert Griffin III on a third down.
The tone of turnovers continued a week later not with an interception but a forced fumble on San Diego tight end Antonio Gates. After Gates caught a pass wide open and beat two defenders in space to break towards the endzone Boykin showed great hustle chasing back from an underneath route a further ten yards downfield to swat the ball out of Gates’ hand and turn the ball over just as Gates was threatening to put six points on the board for the Chargers.
Taking Without Giving
The presence of big plays in a corner’s repertoire often comes at the expense of gambling and giving up big plays in return, but this wasn’t the case with Boykin. He only surrendered one completion in excess of 50 yards all season, a 66-yarder to Rod Streater in what was statistically his worst performance of the season (6/9, 123 yds).
Sure tackling played its part in Boykin’s success here, charged with only two missed tackles all season he ensured that when he gave up a reception he didn’t compound that error with a miss that allowed the play to develop further (20% of the YAC he surrendered all season came on that reception to Streater).
In the end…
What squeezed Boykin off the bottom of the rankings in the end was that he didn’t serve as an every-down coverage defender. It’s not to say that a player in a sub-package role can never be considered, but that their role and their excellence in that requires a balance and as a group Boykin just fell afoul of that dividing line when it came down to the vote for the final spots.
There has been a great deal of emphasis of late on the role that a cornerback executes but the point that I returned to in a recent article on Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Joe Haden was that, ultimately, it has to come back to performance. For me Boykin’s performance this season in his role was strong enough that he should have made our list of the Top 101 players in the NFL, but he came up just shy.
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