Brandon Boykin’s rookie season was not all that complicated.
His role on defense was easily defined. When opposing offenses were in three- or four-receiver sets, he entered the game, played the slot, and for the most part, did a really good job.
But with a dramatic scheme change and a new defensive coordinator this year, Boykin might as well be wearing a red-and-white striped shirt instead of a green-and-white jersey on gamedays.
At 5-9, 182 pounds, Boykin fielded questions all summer about whether he was big enough to play outside at left or right cornerback. But perhaps the question we should have been asking was: Do you have the skills to play outside linebacker?
That's essentially what Boykin's been doing in one particular nickel package that Billy Davis is employing. We first saw this look in Week 1, but Davis went to it all game long against the Chiefs.
This is not a slot corner blitz. Boykin is not stationed across from a Chiefs receiver. He is essentially an outside linebacker rushing the passer.
"It really is like an outside linebacker," Boykin said. "A guy that can cover and blitz and do all those types of things. For a defense, it really gives us an added rusher or added pressure as well as somebody that can fake a rush and get back in coverage and be effective as well. Kind of doing both positions at the same time, like a slot and an outside linebacker. I’m still learning and kind of honing in my skills at both."
Davis called Boykin's number as a pass-rusher 11 times against the Chiefs, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I probably did it more than I normally would last week," Davis said.
"More than anything else, it’s indecision on the offensive line’s part. Why is this little guy coming? Is it a blitz or is it not a blitz? What are they gonna do? Are they gonna put the back on him? Sometimes we can manipulate protections. ...We’re at the early stages of kind of showing and manipulating what we’re giving people, so it’s interesting to see how people are handling it."
The goal is to get Boykin matched up against a running back or a tight end or have him unblocked. But that doesn't always happen.
While the Eagles only have three down linemen in his particular nickel package, it's usually going to be at least a four-man rush. They just want to disguise where the fourth and fifth rushers are coming from.
"It’s just one form of our nickel," said Connor Barwin. "Obviously we’d like to get me rushing more and him dropping more. That’s what our tendency is. But it’s a nice mix-up for the offense to not really know which side’s coming.
"It’s like a standard four-down even front. You just don’t know where we’re coming from. ...It appears like you’re playing odd [3-4], but really most of the time we’re playing even [4-3]. It’s me or Boykin inserting as the fourth rusher."
For a team that lives by the "Big people beat up little people" motto, Boykin against mammoth offensive tackles is far from ideal.
"That’s not the best matchup we’re looking for," Davis said with a grin.
Clearly, Davis has identified his most versatile pieces and is trying to maximize their value. Right now, that means playing Boykin in a variety of roles.
Here, Davis essentially flips the inside and outside backers. Boykin sets up where you might usually find DeMeco Ryans and blitzes outside of Trent Cole.
Here, in 3rd-and-long, he's the deep safety:
On another play, he sets up at outside linebacker and is asked to set the edge in the run game.
Sure, Boykin might have gotten crushed by Eric Fisher, who outweighs him by 124 pounds, but at least he didn't let the running back get to the sideline.
"A lot of times you see me struggling just to hold my ground, but as long as I make that guy go inside of my block, the job is done," he said. "A lot of times it doesn’t look pretty. I might get smashed to the ground afterwards, but as long as I get it done, I’m good.”
In case you're wondering, Boykin still spends all of practice with the cornerbacks. But he'll call or text Davis when he needs extra help and sometimes picks the brains of the true outside linebackers like Barwin, Trent Cole and Brandon Graham.
The use of Boykin shows that there is still a lot of tinkering going on with the Eagles' defense as we enter Week 4. If Davis had another outside linebacker like Barwin who was comfortable dropping into coverage, Boykin would not be filling this role. But in passing situations, the Eagles want Cole and Graham rushing the quarterback, so they set up as down linemen.
Davis is trying just about everything. As Derek Sarley recently pointed out, one look had Boykin and Casey Matthews as the outside backers.
Davis has installed a two-gap 3-4. Even if he doesn't have the ideal personnel, he believes there are enough pieces to get his system in place as the Eagles try to balance long-term goals with short-term effectiveness.
As for Boykin, he said he "loved it" when Davis approached him about playing a more versatile role.
"It’s a new challenge and a new opportunity for me to get better at a skill that a lot of people don’t really necessarily have, other than an outside linebacker," he said. "So if I can be effective as an outside linebacker and sack people and have run fits and cover as well, I think it’ll help us greatly."