When the Pittsburgh Steelers finalized a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for Brandon Boykin, many in Steelers’ Nation rejoiced. The organization added much needed talent to their cornerback depth chart.
The trade suited all three parties involved. Pittsburgh needed help in their secondary after a shoulder injury sidelined rookie Senquez Golson, Philadelphia began to shy away from Boykin after 2013, especially when they doled out big money to recruit Byron Maxwell in the 2015 offseason, and Boykin had issues with head coach Chip Kelly.
Landing arguably the best slot cornerback in the league was a major upgrade to the Steelers’ disastrous secondary. William Gay held slot duties for years, but Pittsburgh started experimenting with him on the outside and it produced positive results. Adding Boykin gave hope that the Steelers secondary would be less of a liability than Steelers’ Nation had been accustomed to over the past couple of seasons.
Even more promising was the fact that the Steelers only gave up a conditional fifth round pick in the trade. For those who knew little of Boykin, discovering that he had six interceptions in his sophomore year only for the Eagles to fail to utilize him a season later, was all in Pittsburgh’s favor. A day three selection was worth the talent.
Before the start of the 2015 season, the Steelers added Ross Cockrell to their depth chart after he was cut by the Buffalo Bills. A defensive back that Mike Tomlin had his eye on during 2014’s draft, Cockrell gave the Steelers a tall, big bodied cornerback fit to play on the outside…and posed a threat to Boykin’s time on the field.
For all the excitement that occurred when Boykin was signed, it was all for not by the time the second half of the season finally arrived. Headlines swirled around the league with titles like “Why isn’t Brandon Boykin on the field?” and “Why are the Steelers wasting Brandon Boykin?”. At the time, Boykin didn’t know the answers to those questions himself in an interview before the Steelers’ week seven game against Kansas City.
"“I’d love to be playing, but it’s out of my control. I can’t come in every day with that type of attitude. I’ve got to continue to work and keep a positive mindset. At any moment, I could be in. I don’t make any type of decisions. I just roll with it and control my attitude and practice my butt off for whenever it is.”"
A month later, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake finally gave an explanation as to why Boykin wasn’t getting time on the field when he told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler this:
"“Someone else would have to be playing badly right now. I have faith and confidence that he can play. Its just that we are doing okay.”"
“We are doing okay.”
If Antwon Blake getting burnt time after time by receivers much faster and physical than he is, the cornerbacks missing on many tackles, looking utterly confused in coverage at times, and allowing multiple 300-yard passers is “okay”, then it would be interesting to see how the Steelers’ secondary did when he thought they were doing bad.
Boykin finally got a chance to prove he deserved a shot on the field in week thirteen’s matchup against the Indianapolis Colts when he picked off Matt Hasselbeck in Pittsburgh’s 45-10 blowout win. Steelers’ Nation finally witnessed the moment they had been awaiting for many months.
For the remainder of the year Boykin saw his role in the secondary increase steadily until the season ended in the AFC Divisional round against the Denver Broncos. He finished the year with 16 tackles, one interception, five defended passes, one sack, one forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Mitch Goldich, Boykin gave his opinion as to why he wasn’t seeing time on the field:
"“When I got traded, I didn’t play in Pittsburgh for nine or ten weeks on defense and there was some draft pick compensation things going on if I played more than 50 percent or 60 percent they would have to give Philadelphia their pick and that had a lot to do with it contrary to what anybody will say. That’s coming from my mouth and what I believe, but sitting on the sideline, of course I was angry – like why am I not playing and how is this going to affect me?”"
No longer under contract or having to worry about backlash from the organization, Boykin vented his frustration to the media…and rightfully so. Why bother making a trade for someone, fail to put them on the field even when they have “faith and confidence they can play”, and waste the draft pick that is desperately needed for the future?
On Steelers.com’s annual Steelers-by-position post on the cornerback depth chart, Bob Labriola attempted to give an explanation as to why Boykin only saw the time on the field that he did:
"“As irrational as Steelers fans can be about disliking a particular player – since this is about cornerbacks, Will Gay immediately comes to mind – they showed an irrational love for Boykin, acquired in an Aug. 1 trade with the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick. There was nothing ever about Boykin that made him a bad teammate, but he just never impressed the coaching staff that he was better than the role he ended up filling. The Steelers didn’t believe he could be an outside cornerback in their defense, and he wasn’t as good as Will Gay in the slot when it came to the combination of coverage/tackling skills they were looking for in the middle of the field.”"
It’s hard to impress the coaching staff when you only see the field for less than 25% of total defensive snaps in a whole season. While William Gay played well on the outside, Blake could have been replaced at any time of the year. He missed a total of 28 tackles and gave up over 1,000 coverage yards…and the Steelers still believed Boykin was unable to play on the edge?
The organization was too worried about potentially losing a fourth-round pick to the point where they sat a playmaker, all the while knowing their secondary was struggling. Whether this decision was made by Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, or individuals higher in ownership may never be discovered, but the Steelers have a valuable lesson to learn when it comes to the priorities of winning football games.
That lesson being: If you commit the future of your organization to acquire an athlete, utilize that athlete.
As for Boykin’s future, it looks as it is nonexistent in the city of Pittsburgh. With Gay re-signed for the next three years, Golson’s return next season, and the Steelers potentially selecting a cornerback in the first round…Boykin doesn’t seem to be in their plans for the secondary in 2016.
With talented free agent cornerbacks such as Sean Smith, Prince Amukamara, Casey Hayward, and Brent Grimes no longer available, teams will start looking towards Boykin in the second week of free agency. According to Zach Klein, he has garnered the attention of the Atlanta Falcons.
Some have called Brandon Boykin‘s time in the Steel City a saga, but this would be the wrong way to describe it. A saga is described as “a long story of heroic achievement”…which it was anything but. An ordeal, “a painful or horrific experience”, would be more fitting.
Painful for Steelers’ Nation to watch him sit on the bench, and horrific for Boykin to have his talent wasted.