LATROBE, Pa. – We have come to understand that the Steelers don't immediately dismiss a cornerback because of his height. Apparently, the Philadelphia Eagles do.
In a move announced after the team's Saturday practice at Saint Vincent College, the Steelers acquired veteran cornerback Brandon Boykin from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a conditional fifth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Because the Steelers currently have 90 players on their roster, a corresponding move to open a spot will have to be made.
A fourth-round pick by the Eagles out of the University of Georgia in 2012, Boykin had six interceptions and 17 passes defensed in his second NFL season. But once Chip Kelly was hired as the Eagles coach in 2013, there became only one significant statistic as it pertained to Boykin.
The Pittsburgh Steelers acquired cornerback Brandon Boykin from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a conditional fifth-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft.
During the 2014 season, his third in the NFL, Boykin was relegated to the slot while the Eagles started Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher at cornerback, and despite ranking 31st in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, Kelly never made a lineup change despite Boykin showing in 2013 that he had the instincts and ball skills to finished tied for second in the NFL with those six interceptions.
The reason, while never stated publicly by Kelly or the Eagles, was height.
"I think (the Eagles) have certain requirements. I think we should be honest and call it what it is," Boykin told the Philadelphia Inquirer early in the offseason. "Maybe they want a taller guy to be outside, and that's what their preference is just to start the standard. And I'm sure there are some exceptions. There's a reason I'm still here."
But as the offseason progressed, the Eagles continued to re-make their cornerback position to Kelly's specifications, and the sum total of those moves evidently made Boykin expendable.
Williams was a salary cap casualty and Fletcher left via free agency. And so it was that the Eagles spent a bunch of money replacing those two players and then continued to add players there who are similar physically – all tall, with long arms.
Byron Maxwell (6-1) signed a $63 million free agent contract; Eric Rowe (6-1) was drafted in the second round; JaCorey Shepherd (5-11) and Randall Evans (6-0) were drafted in the sixth round; and veteran E.J. Biggers (6-0) was signed to a one-year deal. Nolan Carroll (6-0) is the lone holdover from the 2014 group. Up until the trade, Boykin had been the shortest cornerback on the roster.
The Steelers also are in the process of making over their secondary, but for them the top requirement is making plays on the football. In the three seasons from 2012-14, Steelers defenses faced 1,635 pass attempts and finished with only 31 interceptions. From the 2014 group, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu both retired, and Brice McCain signed with the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent.
The Steelers didn't make any moves during free agency involving defensive backs, but during the 2015 draft the Steelers added Senquez Golson, Doran Grant, and Gerod Holliman to the mix.
"The neat thing about this group, we wanted to get better in the back end," said General Manager Kevin Colbert on the day the picking ended, "and between Senquez who had 10 interceptions and Doran who had five and Gerod Holliman who had 14, we just added 29 interceptions to our defensive backfield, and we are excited about what that can bring."
The Steelers also are working on the basics of cover-2, which will allow their defensive backs to play facing the quarterback, which in theory should put them in a better position to make plays on the ball once it is thrown. That philosophy is more dependent on defensive backs who are quick, athletic, and have good ball skills, and is less reliant on height.
Before making the trade for Boykin, the Steelers had 16 defensive backs on their roster, and cornerback Cortez Allen was the tallest at 6-1, and safeties Mike Mitchell and Ian Wild the only other players at least 6-0. Of the guys in the heat of the battle for roster spots and playing time, William Gay is 5-10, Grant is 5-10, Kevin Fogg is 5-10, B.W. Webb is 5-11, Holliman is 5-10, Antwon Blake is 5-9, and Golson – currently on PUP – is 5-9.
"Measurements and all that – it helps, I'm sure, in certain situations – fade balls and jump balls," said Boykin, who just turned 25 in July. "But if you have the athleticism and quickness to play outside it doesn't matter."
Boykin will enter the final season of the rookie contract he signed with the Eagles in 2012, and so he could become an unrestricted free agent next March. Playing in about half the snaps for the Eagles in 2013 as a slot cornerback, Boykin had six interceptions and 17 passes defensed, but his statistics dropped to one interception and nine passes defensed in 2014 as Kelly trended toward taller players, which resulted in Boykin being on the field for about 40 percent of the defensive snaps in 2014.
"This year, I guarantee will be even better," said Boykin. "I feel way better than I did last year. I was battling a hamstring from like the second game all the way throughout the season. This offseason, did yoga, did a lot of stuff just to get my body right, and I feel like I did in 2013."
If that turns out to be true, the Steelers actually have added 35 interceptions to their defensive backfield.