After addressing the front seven with stops at defensive tackle, defensive end, outside linebacker, and middle linebacker, our next step on the defensive half of our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head into the 2014 offseason is a look at the cornerbacks.
In the DT positional analysis, I addressed in some detail what I expected a Ray Horton 2014 Titans defense to look like. Those comments primarily applied to the front seven. While the defensive backfield is integrated into what the front seven looks like and does, the conception of what a cornerback is and what a safety does is likely to remain more similar to what it was in the Gray/Williams 2013 Titans defense.
Of course, it will look somewhat different, and Horton has given us a few hints. We noted in his introductory press conference, "We probably will not play as much Cover-2 as we did last year." As a big fan of understatement I may be biased, but I took that to mean the Titans will play hardly any Cover-2 (or Tampa-2, which they also played some). I still need to watch a lot more 2013 Browns, but my tentative expectations is to see more man-free (single-high safety) and Cover-3, though hopefully more effectively than they did in 2012. Horton will also blitz his defensive backs more than the Titans have done the past couple seasons. In 2012, for instance, the Titans ranked dead last in DB blitz percentage and 27th in sacks by DB while Horton's Cardinals ranked 12th and 4th, respectively. That includes corner blitzes, particularly in sub package and third-and-long situations.
Back in the preseason, I was skeptical of the Titans cornerback grouping, but individually and as a group they had a very strong 2013 season. One starter is back. Another is a free agent and seems unlikely to return. The nickelback is probably a starter. No other cornerback on the roster has significant playing experience. This sounds like a group in need of additions if 2012's pain is to be avoided. Is it?
Jason McCourty had another solid season, starting all 16 games and playing almost every snaps (1053 of 1065, 99%). The Titans credited him with 16 passes defensed, though he did not have any interceptions.
I feel like I'm starting to get to the point with McCourty I was with Michael Roos and David Stewart, where my book on him is well-established and I have a hard time changing it. He has good long speed and good length, but is not the same sort of elite mover the very top cornerbacks in the league are. He generally plays with solid technique, which he needs to avoid getting beat on sharp breaking routes by receivers with better athleticism. Especially for a cornerback, he is a very good tackler. That is something Ray Horton has noted stood out to him. He is not Patrick Peterson or even Joe Haden, but he is a perfectly fine NFL starter whom I expect to see his $3.5 million base salary and $3 million roster bonus.
The big question is where will Alterraun Verner be playing his football in 2014? Jerry Gray kept trying to not play him, experimenting with him at free safety last offseason even notwithstanding his non-ideal size for that role. He stuck at cornerback and kept his starting job, though, and had the best season of his career. He started all 16 games and played 1003 snaps (94%). He had 5 interceptions, and the Titans credited him with 26 pass deflections.
Gray kept trying to bench Verner because he lacks top-level size, athleticism, and long speed. Horton in a radio interview praised the expected first thing you have to praise about Verner, namely his academic smarts carry over on to the field and he is a "very, very smart player." Horton also noted he has "fantastic hands" and praised his toughness, his tackling, and his understanding of how to play football.
The big question with Verner is what kind of contract will he get? Horton rightly observed that he will never win a biggest, fastest, strongest competition, but there is obviously a lot more to football than that. With McCourty already well paid, can the Titans afford to keep Verner, or is that too much money for two very good but perhaps not elite players at one position group? Jim Wyatt has indicated the Titans do not plan to use the franchise tag on him (or anybody else). Is Verner really an $8 million per year cornerback? I like his attributes, but I have my doubts about that. "How much will Verner get?" has been my favorite question to ask the people I talk to (not that I talk to many); about all have been hesitant to pay him $8 million a year, but none would be surprised to see him get that on the free agent market. I expect him to hit the free agent market and sign with a different team, and I would be perfectly fine with that.
Coty Sensabaugh was awful as a rookie and a major area of concern for me going into 2013. He played a lot better in his second season, also in the nickel slot role. He played 493 snaps before going to injured reserve the last two games (52% when on the roster, 46% overall). The Titans credited him with 6 pass deflections. He seems similar athletically to McCourty to me, and I always thought he would be a better outside corner than slot player. We will probably get a chance to see if that is true in 2014.
Is Blidi Wreh-Wilson any good? After the third-round pick played only 92 snaps (9%) in 2013, almost all after Sensabaugh got hurt, I do not really have any idea. I would not take away too much from the final two games, aside from "he didn't get successfully picked on repeatedly by Chad Henne like Sensabaugh did at the end of 2012." In my book, he is a better fit as another guy to throw in the outside mix, but who knows how Horton will see him.
Now that the Tommie Campbell hype train lost its apparent conductor with Jerry Gray's departure. He played 22 snaps in the eight games he played before getting hurt, with the majority of the work coming after Sensabaugh left the Chiefs game with an injury. He still has the length and speed to be a fine Cover-3 corner, but will he learn to play football well enough to do so? Like most later rounds picks, my answer is probably not.
Last year's sixth-round pick Khalid Wooten spent most of the season on the practice squad before the Titans elevated him to the active roster for the final two games after Sensabaugh went on IR. He was inactive for both contests. Consider him maybe in the outside corner mix. I think even less of him in the slot than I do Wreh-Wilson.
George Baker filled Wooten's spot on the practice squad late in the season and was signed to a futures contract. He was with the team in the preseason as an undrafted rookie free agent, played a little bit on defense in the first preseason game, special teams only in the second and third, then was cut as part of the cutdown to 75. Since he played there some in the preseason, consider him a potential slot guy I know nothing actually useful about.
McCourty will starter. Verner's gone. They have a couple outside corner candidates, most notably Sensabaugh, to fill that role. If Horton wants more of a "traditional" slot corner, I am not sure that player is on the roster. If they add that player, either in the free agency or the draft, this could be a solid group. If not, it could be 2012 all over again as Horton's defense undergoes typical first year growing pains.