We continue our trip around the Titans position by position as we head into the 2012 offseason with a look at the cornerback position, including the twelfth starter on defense, the nickelback.
There was a lot of continuity from 2010 to 2011 at corner for the Titans. Drexel anticipated in our preseason look that cornerback would be a position of strength for the Titans’ defense in 2011. As I’ve already noted, comparing the Titans’ pass defense in 2011 to that in 2010 is a more complicated assessment than the Titans’ improvement in scoring defense and yards allowed would lead you to believe. That said, I think it’s fair to say cornerback was indeed the strongest position on the Titans’ defense in 2011.
That of course started with the star and the biggest question mark going forward, Cortland Finnegan. I wrote in last year’s offseason positional analysis I was a little disappointed in Finnegan’s 2010 performance, but had no such qualms about his 2011 play. He started all sixteen games and ended up by the official numbers with 75 tackles (58 solo), only one interception, 11 passes defensed, and his sixth career sack.
The former seventh round pick made good isn’t under contract for 2012, though, and it seems unlikely the Titans will re-sign him before he hits unrestricted free agency. As I wrote yesterday, I don’t expect the Titans to hit him with the franchise tag either. I’m not quite sure he’ll get the money he’s looking for, probably around $10 million APY, but he’ll probably get close to it and in any event more than what the Titans are willing to pay him. Maybe it will be Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, or Jim Schwartz in Detroit, but I’m resigned to the fact he’ll almost certainly be playing elsewhere in 2012.
The other main starter at cornerback was another late-round find, Jason McCourty. The former 2009 sixth-round selection, missed the Saints game, but started the other fifteen games opposite Finnegan after winning a training camp battle for the job. I admit I was rooting for him to win the job, and was pleased when he did. I thought he played pretty well, with no serious lapses in play. He ended up with 104 tackles (84) solo, two interceptions, 13 passes defensed, and his first career sack.
McCourty has, in my opinion, good length and deep speed, but not exceptional short area quickness and is not particularly agile. He’s an outside corner only, and is vulnerable to sharp in-breaking routes by receivers with superior athleticism. I’m not sure his ceiling is too much higher than what we’ve seen already, but the Titans have certainly done a lot worse at starter. He’s headed into the final year of his rookie contract in 2012.
The man McCoury beat out for a starting job was Alterraun Verner. The former UCLA Bruin played in all sixteen games again, but only had three starts after 12 as a rookie. He ended up with 48 tackles (42 solo), one interception, and eight passes defensed. He was the third cornerback, playing when the Titans were in nickel.
Unlike 2010, though, when Vener kicked to slot and McCourty took his outside corner spot in extra defensive back situations, he played outside corner and Cortland Finnegan kicked inside to the slot. I personally liked the move and thought it worked out pretty well. Unless the Titans add a clear starter-type corner, I’d expect Verner to get the start opposite McCourty in the base defense. When the Titans go nickel, I’m not sure what will happen. I’d prefer to see Verner stay outside and them find another corner better suited for the slot, but we’ll see if they agree with me.
The Titans rarely played more than three corners, and those three corners were almost always Finnegan, McCourty, and Verner. The one exception to that was when McCourty missed the game against the Saints, and Chris Hawkins saw his most exensive action of the year. For the season, Hawkins was active in nine games, starting none, and had 14 tackles (11 solo), no interceptions, and officially no passes defensed. My understanding is Hawkins is under contract for 2012, but he would be an exclusive rights free agent even if he was not. There’s a chance he could see a more extensive role in 2012, but I’m not really expecting it.
Most fans are hoping 2011 seventh-round pick Tommie Campbell becomes the latest low draft pick-turned-starting-caliber corner. He played (almost) exclusively special teams as a rookie, appearing in 15 games and recording eight tackles (four solo). At officially 6’3″, 205 pounds, he’s big for a corner, and the Titans seemed to be up in the air on whether he’d end up as a cornerback or safety. He’s listed on the unofficial depth chart at cornerback, so I’m assuming at least for now that’s where the Titans think he’ll play if and when he played defense. He’s fast, and we really don’t have any idea how good he’ll be at playing cornerback against NFL wide receivers.
Ryan Mouton is the man from the 2009 draft class Titans fans may have forgotten, though for good reason. Unimpressive and perhaps over his head as a rookie at both corner and returner, he didn’t look much better in his limited action (nine games, no starts) in 2010. He missed all of 2011 after tearing his right Achilles’ tendon early in training camp. I haven’t heard his rehab is doing anything other than progressing well. I’m not optimistic he’ll ever start in the NFL, but unless the Titans add a starter-type, I think he’s a serious candidate to play slot corner in nickel packages.
The other cornerback on the roster is Terrence Whealtey. He was originally a second-round pick by the Patriots in 2008, and the Titans added him to the practice squad late in 2011. I don’t remember much about his New England tenure, aside from it being short and non-illustrious. He’s appeared in one NFL game the last two seasons, for the Jaguars in 2010. At 5’9″, 185-pounds, he’s offically almost the exact same size as Mouton. I’m not expecting much from him.
Finnegan’s impending departure certainly leaves a hole at the top of the depth chart. Behind him on the depth chart is officially Chris Hawkins, but Verner and McCourty are your presumptive starters for 2012. The Titans are likely to add a body in the position, but who that player will probably be in large part of a reflection of what they think about Verner and McCourty. If they add a high-dollar free agent like Brandon Carr, then (a) they don’t like Verner as a starter, (b) they’re preparing to let McCourty walk in a year, or (c) both.
While the Titans were reportedly in pursuit of Stanford Routt before he signed with the Chiefs, he never visited with the team. My best guess, and I admit it’s just a guess, is the Titans are relatively happy with a starting duo of McCourty and Verner. Any free agent is likely to be more of a CB2/CB3-type with the ability to play at a very high level in the slot. I think it’s more likely the Titans look to draft a cornerback, most likely in the middle rounds. It wouldn’t shock me to see the Titans take a corner high if they think the value is there, but it rarely is.
For better or worse, that likely means the Titans won’t be quite as strong at corner in 2012 as they were in 2011. The keys to the position instead will be finding a good slot defender and improvement from the rest of the defense, particularly the pass rush. If that happens, then the Titans should be just fine at cornerback. If it doesn’t, well, the Titans’ pass defense wasn’t really that great even with a pretty good cornerback group.