We continue our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head into the 2013 offseason with a look at the cornerbacks.
Last offseason, the Titans faced a big decision at the cornerback spot. Would they give a third contract, a big-money deal to impending free agent Cortland Finnegan, or would they let him make it to unrestricted free agency, in which case he would almost certainly go elsewhere. As I predicted in last offseason's positional analysis, the Titans let Finnegan walk and added a corner in the middle rounds of the draft.
Finnegan's departure left the Titans with two corners with starting experience, whom they gladly turned into starter. Both played reasonably. As I cautioned last offseason, though, the Titans needed a good slot defender and improvement from the rest of the defense. The pass rush got better, but the faults that could be ending up being the faults that were. With a young core, though, the cornerback group could be better in 2013 simply from internal improvement.
The top cornerback, if for no other reason than the Titans signed him to a five-year, $40 million contract last offseason was Jason McCourty. He led all Titans defenders in participation, playing 1125 of 1129 total snaps, and tied Akeem Ayers for the team lead with 79 solo tackles (though Ayers beat him in terms of total tackles thanks to more assists than McCourty's 14). He had four interceptions, and the Titans credited him with 17 passes defensed.
The other starting cornerback was Alterraun Verner. Like McCourty a 16-game starter and an outside player, he played 1045 snaps (93% of the time), with his only particularly extended rest coming in the season finale against the Jaguars. He had 78 tackles, two interceptions, ten passes defensed, and a great strip and return score late in regulation of the wild game against the Lions.
McCourty and Verner is a bit of a chalk-and-cheese pairing, as the two aren't the same. McCourty is bigger and faster, with only modest agility for an NFL starting cornerback. Verner is several inches shorter, less physically imposing, and relies more on technique and smarts to compensate. He also moves better, and could play in the slot (as he did in sub packages in 2010).
It feels a bit unusual for teams to have two corners who have distinct styles like this. Despite their disparate styles, the two have relatively similar numbers by preliminary results from the Football Outsiders game charting project (final, properly-adjusted numbers will be available in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, available c. early July, for which I will be doing the Titans content). As for how they did more specifically, I'll direct you to the Defense vs. Types of Receivers table over at Football Outsiders, which indicates how the Titans did well against #2 receivers and struggled against #1 receivers.
2013 is the final year of Verner's rookie deal, and this year will go a long way toward determining just how much interest the Titans will have in retaining him. The cognitive dissonance from contrasting styles may or may not bother the powers that be (whether that's still Ruston Webster et al. next offseason or not), but if I had to make a bet, I'd say Verner is playing elsewhere in 2014.
The Titans divvied up the slot duties in 2012, playing one player the first half of the season and the other player the second half. For the final eight games, that was the aforementioned rookie middle-rounds pick, fourth-rounder Coty Sensabaugh. Sensabaugh finished the season playing 311 snaps (28% of the time), seeing his most extensive action in the season finale against the Jaguars, thanks to the Titans playing nickel, nickel, and more nickel that game. He finished the season with 27 tackles (23 solo) and three passes defensed.
In the games for which Sensabaugh was the nickelback, he played almost exactly 50% of the time. That was down from the 60% of the time the Titans used the first-half-of-the-season nickelback Ryan Mouton. Mouton ended the season playing 386 snaps (34% of the time), but only played 9 snaps in the final five games (a span in which he was inactive three times). The last straw for him was the Week 8 game at home against the Colts, in which Reggie Wayne kept moving into the slot and kept getting open.
Mouton is a free agent this offseason. His more or less benching the second half of the season made it absolutely clear he will not be back except as an absolute stopgap replacement. At the same time, though, on the whole his work in pass coverage was much more mediocre than anything else. Beyond Wayne's play, I suspect his benching also had something to do with not being too much of a presence in run defense. (As Gray has acknowledged, the Titans were terrible in run defense in nickel package.)
I think the Titans want Sensabaugh to be the outside corner of the future. I would expect him to play the slot again in 2013, though it's possible the Titans could do what they did in 2010 and move Verner inside while he as the nickel corner plays outside. As an outside corner, he's a good match for McCourty, a player with good deep speed (4.39 at the Combine) and long arms, but who may not be quite as vulnerable to in-breaking routes. I'm not sure he was a more effective run defender than Mouton was in the slot, and in coverage he was probably even worse. A number of his coverage breakdowns appeared to be due to what were classic rookie mistakes, mental blunders where he appeared to be on a different page from the rest of the defense. Those need to stop happening, or else his future in Tennessee will be a lot brighter than I expect it to be.
The other cornerback was Tommie Campbell. Once again, the majority of the second-year man's action came on special teams. He did mange 68 snaps on defense (6%), 52 of which came in the season finale against the Jaguars. The Titans played a decent amount of dime that game, but he played the entire second half and then some on the outside for Verner. I'd hoped to say something interesting about his play that day, but the Jaguars just kept picking on Sensabaugh instead. Even more than McCourty and Sensabaugh, he's a tall (6'3), long-armed guy with good deep speed.
When I wrote about the cornerbacks in the preseason after the cutdown to 53, I expected Campbell to be the nickel cornerback playing on the outside based on the praise he'd received from McCourty and Jerry Gray, among others, in the offseason and how the Titans had lined up in the preseason. In the regular season, though, first Mouton and then Sensabaugh was the nickelback and we've never gotten a very good explanation as to why. I could guess why, but my position isn't one I'm comfortable making partially-educated guesses in. Given Verner, McCourty, and Sensabaugh, I'm expecting him to be CB4 and primarily a special teams player. He had 9 special teams tackles, a pretty good total, and is pretty good there when he manages to play under control.
The outlook at cornerback reminds me a bit of the outlook at wide receiver, in that there's been discussion that the Titans could choose to treat the position aggressively in free agency and/or the draft. Like at wide receiver, they could certainly improve there. They were definitely better in 2011 with Finnegan than they were in 2012, and adding an elite player, especially one with the ability to excel in the slot, could help out a good deal. At the same time, though, like wide receiver, the Titans are trotting out a mostly young group that should, and is likely to, get better from simple internal improvement.
The big question for me is how they'll handle the slot position. Sensabaugh made plenty of rookie mistakes playing there, but I'm not sure that his mistakes were just rookie mistakes. I think their best solution is probably to move Verner to the slot and play Sensabaugh outside in nickel, but it's possible they like Sensabaugh in the slot and/or dislike Verner there much more than I do. (Worth keeping in mind here is that Verner's slot play came under Chuck Cecil, and Gray made the chance to move Finny inside in nickel.)
One thing I would expect the Titans to do is to add a very modestly-priced veteran and/or a young player with the capability of playing the slot, if only to give them another option. They could retain Mouton, but I think his ship has sailed. The Titans kept 5 cornerbacks active 11 of 16 games last year, so there's definitely a spot that could be filled.