We continue our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we approach the 2013 regular season with a look at the cornerbacks.
I covered this more extensively in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 than I have on here, but in some ways the play of the cornerbacks in 2012 was in the eye of the beholder. By Football Outsiders numbers, the Titans pass defense was only slightly worse in 2012 than it was in 2011 and had the same strengths, performing well against #2 and Other receivers, and weakness, struggling against opponents' top wideouts. Yet, about any subjective analysis would rate the Titans as having a clearly worse cornerback group in 2012 without Cortland Finnegan.
The arrival of Gregg Williams means the Titans will apparently be asking their cornerbacks to play a lot more press man than they've played in the past. That means a different conception of what traits are (and are not) valuable in a cornerback. Some pieces in place already fit the new scheme well. Other pieces do not, but are still valuable. Yet others arrived in the offseason. What does this mean for 2013, and does it help us resolve the apparent paradox in 2012 v. 2011 results?
As I believe my writings here have made clear, I think the Titans' cornerbacks were clearly worse as a group in 2012 than they were in 2011. I rate a pass rush that was much more effective overall and had more hurries on fewer attempts as accounting for the equal performance in 2012 with a worse cornerback group. Unsurprisingly, quarterbacks are less effective when hurried than when they are not hurried. As we state in the introduction to FOA2013 (and prior volumes), sometimes a good pass defense is more about a good pass rush than about good cornerbacks, and it's very hard to untangle the effect of pass rush and corner in even the adjusted statistics.
That digression out of the way, it is clear Jason McCourty will be one of the starting corners for the Titans this year. He possesses the height and deep speed that are the necessary elements to play press. At this point in his career he's a known quantity, good at what he's good at, physical enough in the run game, but vulnerable to sharp in-breaking routes. I do not recall him ever playing in the slot, and despite what Jerry Gray suggested in one recent media session, I do not expect to ever see him there. If he continues to play 9 yards off, teams will continue to throw stop routes and the like in front of him all day with good success. That's part of the known quantity I consider McCourty and a scheme issue for Williams and Jerry Gray. I wouldn't pay him $40 million over five years, but he's still a reasonable starter.
It's been obvious for a long while McCourty and Alterraun Verner are chalk and cheese, stylistically-speaking, to use an expression I've probably used too much at this point, including in my offseason cornerbacks look. Verner lacks both the ideal size and long speed to play press man, but his academic intelligence translates well to the field, making him a better player than his pure physical attributes would indicate. The question then becomes, how do you play press man with a starting corner who can't play press man well? The answer may be "As best you can," because Verner is, for lack of a better way to describe it, a better professional football player than anyone else who might start at corner.
If Verner is not a starting outside corner, does he then play the slot? As I noted when I wrote about the sub package defense in the offseason, Gray indicated the slot corner in sub has to be more like a linebacker, and it would not be fair to the more moderately-sized Verner to have to do that. Yet, Gray has made noises more recently about possibly playing him there. I'll believe that when I see it in a regular season game. As part of their recognition that Verner has value yet no clear position in the defense, they had him play free safety in the offseason. He's not big enough to do that, either, but it's a sign the Titans recognize (a) he's a valuable player and (b) they don't know where to play him. He's my "it would be nuts to do so, but I could sort of see it happening" cut, but right now I have him penciled in as the starter at outside corner opposite McCourty.
Tommie Campbell is the man nominally competing with Verner to start at outsider corner. On the hoof, it's easy to see why-he's 6'3", 200 pounds and fast. Unfortunately, starting at corner in the NFL ideally also includes actually playing cornerback well on a consistent basis. Week 17 last year is the only time in the past two seasons the Titans have given him anything like a chance to do that. His action has come primarily on special teams, where he's been a penalty magnet. I bought the hype last offseason he was potentially in line for a lot of playing time, but not now. Paul Kuharsky recently asked "Is Tommie Campbell's chance slipping away?" I think the answer to that is likely yes, and that's why I left him off my 53 in June despite his seeming good fit for the new scheme.
By at least one measure (Football Outsiders' Success Rate), targeting Coty Sensabaugh in coverage was a highly effective proposition for opposing offenses-more effective, in fact, than targeting any other corner in the NFL with more than 20 targets. He played the slot in sub package situations and was abused all too frequently. Some of those mistakes seemed to be mental errors of the type you're not surprised to find in a fourth-round rookie perhaps forced into the lineup before his time. Others seemed to come from being similar to Jason McCourty athletically and sharing a similar vulnerability to sharp breaking routes. I would like to see him battling Verner and Campbell for the outside corner job and somebody else in the slot. Mike Munchak's latest comments were highly equivocal in whether he would play outside, in the slot, or not at all. My tentative assumption is he'll be the nickel corner and play in the slot.
Most cornerbacks drafted in the third round in recent years have not turned into successful starters, or even necessarily starters at all. (N.B. the query does not separate safeties from corners.) I wrote about Blidi Wreh-Wilson in more detail after the draft, noting his physical traits seemed at least vaguely similar to those of McCourty and Sensabaugh. The early indication is he's the fifth corner on the depth chart, and the Titans do not seem particularly interested in giving him lots of playing time as a rookie. Then again, he was the second corner to see time in the slot in the first preseason game. We'll see if that stays true in the future games. I've already reset my expectations for his 2013 contributions to be lower than they were entering training camp, though.
As modest as my expectations for Wooten are, they were and still are even lower for fellow rookie Khalid Wooten. He's an outside corner whose future (or present) may instead be at safety. I'm not absolutely sure he has a spot on the 53-man. I put him on mine, but I'm not sure there's a spot for both him and Campbell unless the Titans do something to find a spot somewhere else (two quarterbacks, no designated return man, three safeties, etc.). As a corner, he's an outside player only. If he does make the Titans and play as a rookie, it will be on special teams.
George Baker rounds out the group. He may be a practice squad candidate if the Titans decide they do not have enough young corners.
In his preview before the Titans-Packers game late last season, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel wrote McCourty as a solid #2, Verner a solid #3, and the rest of the squad looked like they weren't that good. The current grouping is not, at least in my eyes, clearly better than the trio McGinn saw late last season; not surprising, since it is the same group. The cornerbacks will need a strong pass rush and to show internal improvement if the Titans are to have an average or above-average pass defense in 2013.