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2014 Tennessee Titans preseason positional analysis: CB

Programming note: What takes seemingly forever off the DVR takes even longer off the iPad or PC, so preseason game 3 analysis won’t be up until later. Tomorrow if I can find the time to finish, else Wednesday.

After stops around the front seven at defensive line, outside linebacker, and inside linebacker, we turn our position to the secondary part of the defensive half of our tour around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head into the 2014 regular season. Our first secondary stop is at cornerback, which includes nickel slot corner.

As I noted in the offseason positional analysis back in February, that the Titans are shifting from a 4-3 to Ray Horton’s version of the 3-4 should not have a significant effect on the cornerbacks. Instead, what will have an effect on the corners is that Horton tends to play less Cover-2 than Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams played in 2013 and tends to favor more Cover-1/Cover-3 and more creative coverages (N.B. these are rough approximations; I haven’t even attempted to chart even  a single game’s worth of coverage Horton has called in the past).

The one scheme-related question Horton’s arrival does pose for the cornerbacks is whether he’ll designate a top cornerback and have that player move around to match up to the opponent’s best receiver. That is something he seemed to do, at times but not necessarily automatically and reflexively, in both Arizona and Cleveland. In Arizona and Cleveland, though, he was blessed with a supremely talented recent top ten pick.  Will he do the same in Tennessee, where the Titans haven’t picked a cornerback in the first two rounds of the draft in nearly a decade? Preseason indications are that he will not, but c’mon, it’s preseason and thus unreliable evidence.

If Horton sees that player on the roster, it seems virtually certain that Jason McCourty would be the guy. A solid starter (at least), he has good length and long speed. I don’t think he’s quite the sort of flexible mover to thrive playing in the slot, as opposed to just on the outside, or to be that sort of matchup cornerback, but he’s a very good man corner and can play Cover-3 well, at least if Horton doesn’t have him play 9 yards off the receiver and let the opposing team throw smash routes in front of him all day (/end residual 2012 bitterness), though at least he’s a proficient enough tackler teams will have to execute those consistently in their unopposed march down the field. He’ll start, play just about every defensive snap if he’s healthy, and play well.

Thus endeth the non-“crawl in a hole and emerge when the regular season has ended with something acceptable instead of an On the Beach-like doomsday scenario” portion of this positional analysis. Back in the offseason, I declared that if Alterraun Verner indeed left in free agency, as I expected him to, the Titans could be in for a repeat of 2012’s pain with no major additions. The Titans then only added a fourth-round pick to replace Pro Bowler Verner.

The good news, as I’ve said before is that while Coty Sensabaugh‘s NFL experience consists of a season-plus of playing nickel slot and Blidi Wreh-Wilson‘s is a handful of snaps at the end of 2013, the Titans know a lot more than anybody else does about Sensabaugh and Wreh-Wilson’s true level of ability and the match between their skills and their role in Horton’s defense. As far as serenity mantras go, this seems like one we could be repeating a lot in 2014. Sensabaugh and Wreh-Wilson are competing for the starting job opposite McCourty. The loser will very likely play in basic nickel situations. I have Sensabaugh as the favorite to be the starter. In those nickel situations, my guess is Sensabaugh will play his more familiar slot position while Wreh-Wilson plays on the outside. Moving a starting corner to the slot in nickel is not that unusual a move-of local note, the Titans did it in 2011 with Cortland Finnegan when Verner came in-and Sensabaugh’s experience there gives me at least greater comfort there.

Speaking generally, I don’t see either Sensabaugh or Wreh-Wilson as the ideal mover for a slot corner, though perhaps I’m dealing too much with the traditional conception of a slot cornerback as a smaller, shifty player to match up against a prototypical smaller, shifty receiver. Given the trend for flexed tight ends (typically not smaller or shifty), bigger slot receivers, including outside receivers shifting inside, and the role of the nickel corner in run defense, maybe a player like Sensabaugh is a better fit for that slot corner spot. Of course, Horton’s conception of what a slot corner is and does plays a major role here. One thing his defensive backs have done is blitz, though it hasn’t necessarily been the slot corner that’s blitzing.

Thus endeth the panic level one portion of this positional analysis. Now begins panic level two.

One thing Horton does seem to like, including for that blitz role, is the hybrid corner-safety type. That’s what the Titans found in the fourth round in Marqueston Huff. I covered Huff after the draft in some detail and won’t repeat that here. He’ll have a role in those sub packages and on special teams, and we’ll talk about his long-term future after the year. (Yes, I know the online roster has him as a safety; he’s on the unofficial depth chart as a cornerback and has played slot and outside corner on the field.)

With the departure of his hype train conductor Gray, Tommie Campbell‘s roster spot seemed in even more jeopardy than normal entering into the final year of his rookie deal. I’ve had him on my roster prediction, as his speed makes him a valuable special teams player when not committing penalties. He’s also consistently played second team outside corner in the preseason, and behind Jason McCourty. Maybe he’s learned to play corner well; more likely, we won’t find out this season.

One of the questions with Horton is how many defensive backs he will keep. He’s kept as many as 11 before. That led me to believe Micah Pellerin had a shot to make the team, but he was released Monday morning in the first round of cuts. Also released was Marc Anthony, about whom I had no such expectation. That leaves Ri’Shard Anderson and Winston Wright as the two roster longshots hoping for a practice squad job, but more likely getting some snaps in the final preseason game against the Vikings. I will discussion Khalid Wooten with the safeties.

Conclusion-Type Things

One answer. Two big question marks behind him for a position where three players will regularly play. Even bigger question marks behind those two. One major departure, no major additions. Cornerback ended up being a position of reasonable strength for the Titans in 2013; it’s very hard for me to see that being true in 2014 unless Sensabaugh and Wreh-Wilson are both much better than I expect them to be (and than they’ve showed in the preseason games, thin evidence though it is). The Titans like their top four, including Huff, but this is still a position group where it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Titans scour the waiver wire for a player, maybe a veteran, capable of playing respectably in coverage should a need for him arise.