Titans primed for key cornerback battles in Verner’s absence
NASVHILLE, Tenn. — Just days into the Titans’ first minicamp of 2014, and the respective battles at cornerback are already taking shape.
Gone to Tampa Bay, via free agency, is Alterraun Verner, who made the Pro Bowl with the Titans last season. He parlayed that success into a four-year deal, worth $27.75 million, with the Bucs.
That leaves a trio of returnees — fourth-year Tommie Campbell, third-year Coty Sensabaugh and second-year Blidi Wreh-Wilson — or a possible draft pick or late free-agent signee to fill the slot opposite veteran cornerback Jason McCourty.
"It looks like we have some guys that can step in and compete there," said Titans first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt, whose team wraps the three-day minicamp on Thursday.
A trio of Organized Team Activities will come later this month and early next before the Titans’ only mandatory minicamp (June 17-19). Training camp commences in late July, and somewhere along the way before the season opener against Kansas City (Sept. 7), the starter will be determined.
Last season, Verner didn’t win the starting job over Campbell until the final week of training camp. Campbell has shown flashes of athleticism but lacks in pure cover skills. Last season’s corner job was Campbell’s to win last year … and he lost.
A seventh-round draft pick in 2011 out of California (Pa.), Campbell then played sparingly in the secondary and was used primarily on special teams. He missed the last eight games with a shoulder injury.
This summer’s leader in the clubhouse for left cornerback may be Sensabaugh (six total starts), a 2012 draft pick out of Clemson (3rd round). He played in every game as a rookie two years ago, following that with being the lead nickel cornerback last season.
"I have played nickel in this league," says Sensabaugh, who has 64 tackles in two seasons. "But I still haven’t solidified myself. So, I am excited about the opportunity.
"As a football player, that’s all you can ask for — an opportunity. Nobody is going to give you anything."
Also trying to earn the starting slot is Wreh-Wilson, a third-round pick from 2013. He played in 13 games last season, mostly on special teams. But he also showed enough skills and athleticism in the secondary to possibly start in 2014.
"You worry about yourself when you go out on the field," Wreh-Wilson said of the cornerback competition. "But at the end of the day, you know that’s your brother you’re lining up across.
"So, whoever you are competing with, you know that’s your teammate. You always want to keep that relationship first and put the team before yourself."
Wreh-Wilson believes the old adage that football players, at every level, learn the most from their first to second season. He falls into that category, heading into Year 2.
"Even in the offseason, I didn’t have a whole lot of football around me," he said. "But just thinking back on all the things I learned from last season, I definitely got to see a lot. There was a big learning curve from college."
Along with their athleticism, Whisenhunt also likes the size of all three potential starters. Campbell (6-foot-3, 198 pounds) is the biggest of trio; Sensabaugh goes 5-11 and 187 pounds and Wreh-Wilson stands at 6-1 and 198 pounds.
"They have the size, the speed, the combos," Whisenhunt said of the trio (none have any NFL interceptions). "We’ve just got see them do it on the field. From what I have seen on tape from last year, I feel good about that."
As for McCourty, he is already considered one of the top cornerbacks in the leagues, although Verner had the breakthrough last season with a team-high five interceptions, tied for best in the AFC.
In 74 games, including 56 as a starter, McCourty has 352 tackles and eight interceptions.
The starting safeties return intact. Strong safety Bernard Pollard led the team in tackles last season and subsequently signed a two-year deal during the offseason. Former Pro Bowl free safety Michael Griffin also returns, as well as veteran George Wilson, who plays a variety of roles in the secondary.
While either Sensabaugh, Wreh-Wilson or Campbell will be the designated starter at left cornerback, the others will be involved in various nickel- and dime-secondary packages.
"I am confident in everybody on this roster," Sensabaugh said. "We’re all here for a reason, and we all can play. So, it’s just about us going out and competing and pushing each other. Competition brings out the best in everybody. So, may the best man win."
Sensabaugh plans on being that man.
"Am I ready to be a starting cornerback?" he asked with a grin. "The film doesn’t lie. That’s my goal, that the film shows exactly that."