The next stop in our tour after the Titans position by position as we approach the 2010 regular season is one where we know the Titans will have a new starter: the cornerbacks (including the nickel back).
Fortunately, the starter they have returning is a pretty good one to build around. Considering the shambolic state of the Titans’ 2009 secondary, Cortland Finnegan had a pretty good year, tying his career high with five interceptions despite missing three games. By Football Outsiders numbers, he also ranked 14th among cornerbacks in Success Rate, a measure of how well defenders do in terms of preventing successful plays by the offense.
The contenders for the other starting cornerback spot have some pretty big shoes to fill. Nick Harper of course started opposite Finnegan last year and put up some pretty amazing numbers. It’s hard to throw at the same corner all the time and have success, but Titans’ opponents manged it. Harper was, by FO numbers, the league’s 3rd most targeted cornerback and the 4th least successful. On the other hand, Harper was one of the league’s best corners… at run defense. He didn’t miss many tackles and consistently stopped opposing runners for little gain. Whoever his replacement will be will almost certainly be a worse run defender and a better pass defender.
Right now, the best candidate for that replacement looks like Jason McCourty. The second year man out of Rutgers started three games last season and looked about how you’d expect a rookie 6th round pick to look; namely, he and the rest of the secondary got torched in two of the three games, at Jacksonville and at New England, but camp reports and his play in the first preseason game have him as the front-runner to play on the outside.
If McCourty doesn’t get the starting nod, then the next most likely candidate is probably his fellow sophomore year man Ryan Mouton. The former Hawaii player started two games of his own last season, namely those two aforementioned disasters at Jacksonville and at Buffalo, and looked like a rookie unaccustomed to big-time competition (there’s a big difference between the NFL and the WAC). He’s also not a punt returner, as the Titans learned to their dismay in Week 3 last year. I’m trying not to focus on his performance in last Saturday’s preseason game at Seattle, where he was, to be frank, not good. If he doesn’t start, he has a chance to play some at nickel corner, where at 5’9″ he’s probably better suited than the taller McCourty.
The primary nickel back, though, will almost certainly once again be safety Vinny Fuller. For more on him, see the safeties positional analysis. He does a pretty reasonable job at that task, but short of an extreme emergency will not see any work at all on the outside.
If Mouton falters, then the next man up is probably rookie 4th-rounder Alterraun Verner. The UCLA math major has earned some strong reviews for his play in camp thus far and had his first NFL interception against the Seahawks (though I still don’t think he actually caught the ball). Given Jeff Fisher’s general reluctance to start rookies and the problems Mouton and McCourty had last season, I expect him to play primarily on special teams this year and compete for an expanded role in 2011.
Beyond Finnegan, the corner with the most NFL experience is former Rams first round selection Tye Hill. I thought he might beat out Mouton and McCourty for the starting job, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to win a competition on a Jeff Fisher-coached team when you’re not on the field. And, as has been the case all too often in his NFL career, Hill has been out with injuries and unable to play. He’s now recovered from his hamstring injury and practicing, and should make his preseason debut on Monday against the Cardinals. I expect him to make the team if he learns the playbook. A large part of that expectation, though, is the lack of competition because of Rod Hood‘s season-ending injury and Pete Ittersagen being a camp body only. Even if Hill does make the team, I’m not sure he’ll be playing too much.
Finnegan’s a very good corner to build around, but, as was the case at outside linebacker, it’s not clear the Titans have a second league-average starter at the position. It won’t be as bad as it was last year, but the Titans will still probably once again be starting another cornerback they’ll need to protect in 2010.