Why the Eagles Chose Boykin

The Eagles’ decision to part ways with veteran Joselio Hanson signified one thing above all else: They have confidence in rookie Brandon Boykin.

If the coaches had their doubts about Boykin, they could have held on to Hanson, let him start the season as the nickel cornerback and gradually eased the rookie into that role. Instead, Boykin gets the nod right away.

Last year, according to Football Outsiders, the Eagles played nickel on about 47 percent of their defensive snaps. It’s a position that requires a unique skill set, specifically the athleticism to cover different types of receivers without the benefit of using the sideline.

“It’s a very important part of the defense,” Boykin said recently. “Slot receivers are probably some of the best players on the teams on each offense, so having somebody that can guard and tackle and be quick enough to guard each way is pivotal in the game. And I think more and more, we’re seeing how important they are.”

Boykin will be tested early. Cleveland’s Greg Little had 40 catches for 466 yards in the slot last year, according to Pro Football Focus. The Eagles face the Browns in Week 1. Anquan Boldin is past his prime, but Boykin will have to match up with the veteran in Week 2 when the Ravens visit the Linc. Early Doucet (44 catches, 590 yards from the slot) is on the schedule in Week 3 when the Birds go to Arizona. And the Eagles have Victor Cruz and the Giants in Week 4. Cruz killed the Birds last year and piled up 1,208 yards from the slot in 2011, most in the NFL.

But this is why the Eagles drafted Boykin in the fourth round. Greg Cosell of NFL Films called him one of the two-best inside corners in the draft. Along with being the team’s primary kickoff returner, Boykin will be counted on to bottle up opposing slot receivers and shore up what was a shaky secondary a year ago.

Hanson turned 31 earlier this month, and while he’s proven to be a reliable veteran over the years, he did not have a great season in 2011. Football Outsiders has a metric called success rate, which, for cornerbacks, is defined as the percentage of passes that don’t manage at least 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent of needed yards on second down, or 100 percent of needed yards on third down. While it’s only one piece of the puzzle, Hanson’s success rate dropped from 63 percent in 2010 to 49 percent in 2011.

That was worse than Asante Samuel (67 percent), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (61 percent) and Nnamdi Asomugha (56 percent).

The Eagles used four of their first five draft picks on defensive players. Three of them – Boykin, Mychal Kendricks and Fletcher Cox – will be counted on right away.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.