When the Eagles needed to close out their Week 11 meeting with Washington, cornerback Brandon Boykin was there. When the Green Bay Packers were looking to tie the game in the second quarter of Week 10, Boykin came through. Most recently, when the Dallas Cowboys were given the ball with time for one final drive with the NFC East title on the line, Boykin stepped in front of a Kyle Orton pass to send the Eagles into the playoffs. Each one of Boykin's six interceptions seems to be bigger than the last. Five of them came with a one-possession lead; four occurred in the fourth quarter; two came in the red zone and two of them ended games.
It's been quite a season for the Eagles' second-year cornerback. After having a stellar Training Camp in which he impressed those in attendance at the NovaCare Complex, Boykin was slotted in as the team's primary nickel cornerback. When head coach Chip Kelly was asked why Boykin wasn't getting a chance to start outside, he stressed the importance of a having a good slot defender. Now, some six months later, that move appears to have paid off. Boykin led the team with six interceptions, and Kelly is not surprised with how well he has played.
"Just how hard he works in practice and kind of what you see on Sundays, is what we see every day in practice," Kelly said on Wednesday. "That's kind of what we preach around here is that you don't rise to the occasion; you sink to your level of training, and he trains at a very high level every day he's out there and that's evident to us and as a staff. And what you see on Sundays is what we see every day during the week."
In the NFL, the term "sophomore slump" is often thrown around by analysts. In a player's rookie season, unfamiliarity from opposing defenses can lead to big seasons from first-year players. Once the second season starts, teams have more tape and more in-game experience, leading to a decreased in production from a number of second-year players. Boykin, a fourth-round pick in 2012, has shattered that cliché, emerging as one of the top young secondary players in the game. Agreeing with his head coach, Boykin believes that his preparation has set him apart.
"The way I approach the game and approach my preparation every week is a lot different (from my first year)," said the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Boykin. "Just kind of getting in that groove and knowing what it takes to prepare and be successful, and that's more than just film study and practice, it's your daily habits and when you go to sleep and just your everyday routine. I've kind of got that down pat now, and the game has slowed down for me.
"Everybody really told me that between your first and second year is when you make your biggest jump. I've had a lot of success this year but I feel like I can get better, so I'm hoping next year will be better too."
Even when starting cornerback Bradley Fletcher was sidelined for two games with a pectoral injury, Kelly elected to keep Boykin inside and start Roc Carmichael on the outside. Kelly's goal all along was to make Boykin a great nickel defender, and Boykin has seen the benefits of that plan.
"The growth from the beginning of the year until now is huge," Boykin said. "Just from learning the ins and out of the scheme to me being able to read what receivers are going to do in certain situations. (Coach Kelly) is right about my growth in that (regard) and not having to worry about anything else has helped me, especially this year to develop and get better."
The former Georgia Bulldog has made a number of spectacular plays this season, from his one-handed interception that he snatched away from wide receiver Victor Cruz to his electrifying pick-six against the Chicago Bears. While those plays may provide the flashiest moments of Boykin's 2013 highlight reel, Boykin believes that his division-clinching interception against Dallas was his finest moment.
"I think it has to be first," Boykin said. "It meant more than any of the other plays, just as far as what was on the line. You definitely have to rank it up there because of the time that it happened."
It's difficult to say what the future holds for Boykin. Could he be moved to the outside at some point in his career? Absolutely, but for now Boykin's mind is set on just one thing - preparing for quarterback Drew Brees and the dangerous New Orleans Saints offense.
"That's something that maybe you all can talk about in the offseason, but right now we're focusing on the Saints," he said. "My job is to be the nickel and do what I'm supposed to do. This game, I'll probably be out there a lot more than I have been in the past this season, so I'm just focusing on that.
"It's definitely one of our biggest challenges of the season. It's the playoffs, so everybody is well-prepared and good enough to beat you. (Brees has) the tight ends and running backs that can be receivers and people that can play all over the place, he has weapons everywhere. For us to be able to kind of know how he approaches the game and all of his weapons, I think we have a good game plan for it and we just have to execute."