Next up on our tour of the Titans position by position as we rapidly approach the beginning of their 2012 regular season is the cornerbacks.
I wrote in the offseason positional analysis that I thought cornerback was the Titans' strongest defensive position in 2011. I'm much less certain that will be the case in 2012, thanks to the loss of Cortland Finnegan, but do think it will be one of the more interesting positions to watch.
With Finnegan gone, the leader of the group is last year's other starter at the position, Jason McCourty. In a year, the former Rutgers player has gone from the clear underdog in most fans' eyes for a starting job to a five year, $40 million contract extension. That's quite a change.
As I noted in the offseason positional analysis, McCourty has good length and deep speed, but not exceptional short area quickness and is not particularly agile (twin brother Devin was red-shirted and a first-, rather than sixth-, round draft pick because I think he's better here). 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. I was a bit surprised the Titans were willing to re-up him and for as much money per year as they reportedly were willing to pay Finnegan. McCourty is younger, though, and a solid locker room citizen.
The starter opposite McCourty is the man he beat out for the starting job and the man who'd previously stolen McCourty's starting job, Alterraun Verner. Beyond his starting work on the outside, Verner has gone from playing the slot when the Titans were in nickel as a rookie in 2010 to playing outside when the Titans were in nickel last year back to playing in the slot, at least most probably, when the Titans are in nickel. I thought Finnegan was a particularly strong player in the slot outside, and Verner has big shoes to fill.
On the outside, well, I didn't understand why McCourty lost his job in the first place and thought he should have regained his spot. I don't hate Verner, but don't see him as a particular standout. He's a player who does, and has to, use his smarts to compensate.
Like many fans, I'm more intrigued by last year's seventh-round pick Tommie Campbell. He played almost exclusively special teams last year and showed good speed and athletic ability. His most memorable play was taking a handoff on a kickoff return for a score; to be fair, that's a really memorable "most memorable play." He has good length and earned a lot of praise for his technique work in the offseason. The level of hype from the team seemed to die down a little bit during training camp. When Verner goes to the slot in nickel situations, Campbell seems poised to step into the lineup on the outside. He's much closer to the prototype corner Gray might be looking for and McCourty largely fits than Verner is in my opinion.
Ryan Mouton went from much-maligned to rarely-used to almost completely forgotten when he spent last season on injured reserve. He beat out Chris Hawkins for the last cornerback job, though, and I believe for one short but very good reason: he's the backup nickel corner. When the first-time cornerback trio was not Campbell and McCourty with Verner in the slot it was Mouton in the slot with Verner and McCourty outside. We saw in Mouton's rookie season in 2009 how important that position was. I'm not expecting him to play much, if any, outside corner barring a spate of injuries like in 2009, but I'm optimistic he'll fill what I believe is his role on the team quite reasonably.
The final corner on the 53-man roster is rookie fourth-round pick Coty Sensabaugh. His pre-draft profile was relatively similar to that of Jason McCourty, and he looked about as ready to play as a rookie as McCourty was (remember JMac started the awful loss to Jacksonville that more or less sealed 2009's early fate of disappointment. I'm not really expecting anything from him this year.
With Finnegan's departure, there was some speculation the Titans might replace him with another big-dollar free agent cornerback. The only notable addition, though, was Sensabaugh. The result in my eyes is that cornerback has gone from a strength to something probably somewhere under that this year. Still, as I indicated earlier, cornerback may be the Titans' most interesting non-Jake Locker position group this year.