It won’t be a case of right place, right time that makes Tommie Campbell a starter — potentially a star — in the NFL.
The Tennessee Titans cornerback has the physical tools that guarantee he won’t need things to happen a certain way. For him, it’s simply a matter of being in the right place all the time.
“It’s just making the coaches trust me,” Campbell said a day after the Titans’ 2012 season ended. “If I have deep-third coverage in practice. then I need to be in the deep third. If I’m playing Cover 2, I need to get the jam and then sink — simple things like that before they could throw a guy like me out there.”
It is not overstating things to say that if the Titans want to improve their defense this year over 2012 (26th in passing yards allowed, a franchise record and league-high 471 yards allowed), Campbell would be a good place to start. More accurately, it would be good to have him as a starter.
For example, if he is on the field, Alterraun Verner, who lacks the high-end speed, can play exclusively over the slot receiver, where his instincts and knack for the ball are much more valuable. Coaches used that approach extensively throughout training camp and the preseason, but when the regular season started, Campbell was little more than a special teams performer.
Only in the final game, a victory over Jacksonville, did Campbell get extensive time at cornerback, and in that game he tipped a pass that linebacker Zach Brown intercepted and returned for a touchdown. He broke up one other pass and made a career-high five tackles — four more than he had in his previous 13 appearances (he missed two games with an injury).
“I expected to play [this season] but I had some personal issues that I needed to take care of and needed to make the coaches trust me a little more than what I had been doing,” he said. “So that’s what I needed to work on. It was off-the-field things, being late to a meeting. Simple things like that.”
Campbell is the kind of guy who can make it look so easy.
He is 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, roughly three or four inches taller and about 20 pounds heavier than those who typically play his position. He’s also fast. Really fast. Possibly the fastest guy on the team.
Plus, he has an uncommon appreciation for the opportunity afforded him when Tennessee selected him in the seventh round of the 2011 draft. He started his college football career at Pittsburgh but finished it at Indiana (Pa.), a Division II program. In between, he spent six months as a janitor at the Pittsburgh airport.
“I have no doubt that Tommie Campbell is going to be a starter somewhere — here later on, or next year or somewhere,” Verner said. “I feel like he has a lot of skill sets that are going to make him be successful in this league. And he’s hungry. He wants to learn. He wants to try to get better.
“That’s the whole thing about this league — it’s competition, competition. Especially if you’re 6-10, you can’t be status quo and do the same things over and over, anyway.”
The only way for Campbell to convince the Titans to make the switch to him for good, though, is to provide a certain predictability.
“I just have to be consistent,” he said. “Consistency is the key thing on this level. You can be good four or five plays in a row and then you can have five bad plays after that. You’re judged by the bad — if you’re giving up touchdowns and points, then it’s just a bad situation. …
I just want to go out there, be able to compete, do my job and just earn the trust of the coaches.”
Other players who need to play better and/or play more in 2013 in order for the Titans to end their four-year absence from the postseason:
• Jake Locker, quarterback. It will help that his left shoulder has been surgically repaired and ought to be at 100 percent at the start of the 2013 season. It will be even more helpful for him to play behind an offensive line that has all of its projected starters rather than mostly second- and third-teamers, as was the case much of the season half of the year. Still, he has to complete a higher percentage of his throws (56.4 percent this season) and cannot have more interceptions than touchdown throws (11 and 10, respectively).
• Akeem Ayers, linebacker. Few, if any, have complaints about how the 2011 second-round pick has progressed though his first two seasons, particularly since he led the team in tackles (110) and tied for second in sacks (six) this season. What he cannot do now is plateau. The defense needs a dominant player, a game-changer, and Ayers is the closest to being that guy. A good place to look for improvement is in forced fumbles — he had one in 2012.
• Taylor Thompson, tight end. All things considered it was not a bad start for the converted defensive end, but now it’s time to consider him simply a tight end. That means when he gets left alone deep down the field, as he was at San Diego, he needs to catch the ball when it’s thrown to him. Rather than just provide depth to his position group, he needs to help expand the offense in ways that have become popular with other multi-tight-end packages around the league.
• Derrick Morgan, defensive end. After two injury-plagued seasons the 2010 first-round pick finally started to realize his potential in 2012. As with Ayers, now is not the time to stop. The best place to start is to reduce his number of quarterback pressures (19) and turn some of them into sacks. As it was, he led the team with six and half, but no one else had even half as many quarterback pressures, which means he was tantalizingly close to the quarterback a little too often.
• Robert Johnson, safety. Like Campbell, he has all the athletic gifts to look like a perfect fit at the position. In his case, reliability and durability have been issues. Not only would the Titans benefit from his improvement but after three seasons (he was a fifth round pick in 2010) his career likely depends upon it at this point. If he can establish himself, he can shore up the pass defense deep down the middle, which has to happen one way or another.