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Titans training camp 2017 positional battles: Cornerback

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Can a 2016 position of weakness become a strength in 2017?

NFL: 2017 NFL Draft Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our look at Titans training camp battles with the cornerbacks. You can read about the wide receiver battle here.

CORNERBACKS

The battle at cornerback is as much for a spot in the starting lineup as it is for a spot on the final 53. The other weakest group from 2016 has also become a potential position of strength with a number of additions via free agency and the draft.

THE CONTENDERS

Returning Players: LeShaun Sims, Brice McCain, Kalan Reed, D’Joun Smith

New Additions: Adoree Jackson (draft), Logan Ryan (FA), Demontre Hurst (FA)

Mike: Ah yes, the position of Titans fans nightmares from a season ago. The Titans cornerbacks were mostly horrific last year, but the good news is that the primary culprits from that squad are gone. Perrish Cox, in particular, was just a comedy act in coverage last year. It is no coincidence that the secondary put together their best games of the season directly after Cox was let go. Antwon Valentino Blake probably got more than his fair share of venom from Titans fans due to some particularly visible miscues, but he was always more of a special teams guy than a cover corner. Even Jason McCourty was clearly a step slow last year leading to his snap count being heavily reduced over the last few weeks of 2016 and his eventual release this offseason.

This season should see improvement through both addition by subtraction and addition by...well...addition. Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson should both add dimensions to the secondary that it previously lacked.

Ryan brings a physical presence and thrived in New England when covering bigger receivers like Demaryius Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins. He can cover both outside and in the slot which makes him a very flexible piece in a very flexible defense. However, the thing I’m most excited about with Logan Ryan is his ability to create turnovers. As I mentioned in my original write up on Ryan after he signed, his 13 interceptions since entering the league in 2013 rank in the top 10 among all NFL corners over that time period. He accomplished that despite only being a part time player during his first two seasons. The Titans defense created very few impact turnovers last year and Ryan should help turn that around.

Jackson brings more of a speed element to the secondary, but similar to Ryan, he has a nose for the football as evidenced by his 5 interceptions last year at USC, which tied him for 7th among all players in Power 5 conferences. The Titans loved to play man coverage in 2016 and a strong argument could be made that the Adoree Jackson pick was specifically to give them a player who matched up well with T.Y. Hilton, and to a lesser degree Marqise Lee and Will Fuller in the division.

Similar to the wide receivers, there are two separate battles going on at corner in my opinion. There is the battle among Ryan, Jackson, LeShaun Sims, and Brice McCain for snaps, and then there is the battle between Kalan Reed, D’Joun Smith, and Demontre Hurst for roster spots. You have to figure Ryan is almost a lock to be on the field the most given what they paid to bring him in this offseason and his level of experience, but after that it gets cloudy for me. Sims and Jackson likely go head-to-head for the second "starting corner" spot across from Ryan in the base defense. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Sims take that job coming out of camp given the year of experience both at the NFL competition level and in LeBeau’s system. Brice McCain is going to factor in to this mix as well. I thought he played pretty well last year for the most part and he gives you another speed guy to handle the smaller, faster receivers. My guess here is that we see Ryan and Sims starting Week 1 with Jackson rotating in pretty heavily and McCain getting some run in nickel and dime packages.

Last year the Titans kept 6 corners heading into the season, which would leave two more spots for Kalan Reed, D’Joun Smith, and Demontre Hurst to compete for. We didn’t see much of Reed last year so he’s still a bit of an unknown quantity at the NFL level, but his college production as a turnover creator fits perfectly in line with several of Jon Robinson’s other moves.

Smith came over as a midseason waiver claim in 2016. As a former high 3rd round pick of the Colts his talent level may be the highest out of this group, but his "lack of professionalism" cost him his job in Indy. His name has come up in a positive light a few times from Mularkey at press conferences this offseason which is encouraging for his chances. I think Smith and Reed make the roster.

The guy I have on the outside looking in right now is Hurst. He’s a guy with experience at the NFL level, but he is really more of a slot corner, lacking the physicality to hold up outside or against larger receivers in general.

Justin: The position with the most amount of roster turnover, particularly towards the top of the depth chart, is easily cornerback, and for good reason.

The Titans ranked 30th overall defending the pass last season. The cornerbacks who gave up the majority of those yards are no longer with the team. Perrish Cox was relieved of his duties mid-season, Jason McCourty was cut in the spring, and management opted not to pursue a second contract with Valentino Blake.

That leaves newcomers Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson to compete with roster holdovers LeShaun Sims and Brice McCain for the top spots on the depth chart.

Logan Ryan, as Mike said, will undoubtedly be the top dog in the rotation. Ryan’s ability as a turnover-creator, or “disruptor” to use Jon Robinson’s language, is much needed on this Titans’ defense, but another much-needed element Ryan brings to the team is his ability as a press-cover corner in terms of matching up with the type of big-bodied receivers that have given the Titans fits in recent years.

DeAndre Hopkins in particular always puts up numbers against Tennessee. In eight career games, Hopkins has 48 catches for 823 yards and 5 TDs, an average statline of 6 catches for 102 yards and .6 TDs per game. In three career games against New England, Hopkins is averaging 3 catches for 62 yards per game and has never scored a touchdown against the Patriots (or against Logan Ryan).

At the bottom of the screen, Logan Ryan jams DeAndre Hopkins, disrupting the route timing, then breaks up the pass. (NFL Gamepass)

In the division, Ryan will likely match-up with Hopkins, Allen Robinson, and Donte Moncrief. That leaves Adoree’ Jackson and LeShaun Sims to compete for snaps on the other side of the formation.

Sims has the upperhand, being a second-year player with NFL game experience. Dick LeBeau has a historical aversion to giving significant snaps to rookies right away, but if Jackson impresses, he could see the field early on in nickel packages. However, I expect the most snaps at the start of the year to go to Ryan, Sims, and Brice McCain, with Jackson rotating in occasionally to give the others guys a breather.

McCain probably won’t hold on to that “starting” job for very long, and similar to the rookie receivers, I expect Jackson’s workload to be gradually increased week to week.

What will be most interesting to me is how the team plans to use the different cornerbacks’ various versatility. Ryan and Jackson are both capable of playing outside or in the slot, with Ryan’s best position arguably slot corner. Brice McCain is almost exclusively a slot corner, while LeShaun Sims spent most of his rookie season on the outside.

If Ryan and Sims open the year as the starting outside corners as expected, I will be curious to see who bumps inside in nickel and dime formations. It could depend on the match-up, as we expect Ryan to line up against the bigger, more-physical receivers while Jackson and McCain take on the smaller, speedier threats. Thus, the slot corner position could change game to game, or even play to play.

Competition aside, the Titans’ defense ran a lot of snaps with four cornerbacks on the field last season, and these four will be the four on the field in those scenarios for 2017, barring injury.

The battle at the back end of the roster will be interesting to track, and will depend on how many corners the Titans decide to keep. I could see them keeping 6 again, but it wouldn’t shock me if they kept 7 given the lack of experience of the group outside of Ryan and McCain.

Kalan Reed, D’Joun Smith, and Demontre Hurst will battle for those last two or three spots, and it’s possible that all three end up on the team.

If the team only keeps six corners, it might make sense to retain Smith and Hurst, as Kalan Reed still has practice squad eligibility, essentially allowing them to keep all seven corners currently in contention.

But it’s anybody’s guess as to who will emerge out of this group. It will likely come down to whoever can contribute the most on special teams.