Last season, every defensive back, with the exception of strong safety Chris Hope, was subjected to training camp competition.
It worked wonders for a revamped secondary that helped solidify a defense that wound up fifth overall in the NFL just one year after being last.
The fact that it happened without the secondary’s most talented player — Adam “Pacman” Jones, who was suspended and eventually traded in April — is an even more remarkable testament to the group.
As the Titans go into 2008, most of the starting positions are solidified with backup roles remaining to be sorted out.
Left cornerback — Nick Harper, Reynaldo Hill, Chris Carr, Marquise Cole
Right cornerback — Cortland Finnegan, Eric King, Cary Williams, Shirdonya Mitchell
Strong safety— Chris Hope, Calvin Lowry, Donnie Nickey, Rocky Schwartz
Free safety— Michael Griffin, Vincent Fuller, Calvin Lowry, Chris Carr, Tony Joiner
Nickelback — Vincent Fuller, Eric King, Chris Carr
The Titans now return four starters — all of whom now have a season of experience playing together. That’s something any defensive coordinator should be pleased about.
In the absence of Pacman Jones, Cortland Finnegan blossomed from a seventh-round nickelback into a solid starter who could eventually knock on the door of the Pro Bowl one day if he keeps progressing.
Across from him, Nick Harper is a veteran who can still play adequately even approaching age 34. And if injury should befall either starter, the Titans are confident that Eric King and Reynaldo Hill can fill in capably.
At safety, Michael Griffin, last year’s first-round pick, is likely the answer at that spot for the next five years or so. Griffin began his NFL life as a cornerback, but took over as the starter at free safety six weeks into the regular season and is now entrenched there.
Hope is the glue that holds the secondary together and has pronounced himself ready to go after his season ended with a scary neck injury in November in Cincinnati last year.
Hope’s injury last season should have sent a message as to the importance of safety depth. There is the concern that if he or Griffin were to miss extensive time that the unit could suffer.
Fuller is more of a nickelback, and is not really built to take the down-to-down punishment often required of an NFL safety, while Nickey has been solid on special teams, but has played only sparingly on defense in his career.
Lowry is probably the best available backup option. He was given the starting free safety job a year ago, despite the belief of many that he was outplayed by Lamont Thompson in preseason last year. Lowry was eventually replaced by Griffin as a starter, but played better after returning to the lineup in Hope’s spot.
BIGGEST CAMP BATTLE
With most of the positions already etched in stone heading into this camp, the only pseudo-battle of sorts could be at nickelback, where King might be able to mount a challenge against Fuller. Fuller did OK last season, but the Titans turned to King late in the year before he was injured, and they like his tenacity. Still, the nickel role is Fuller’s for the taking once again in training camp.
ON THE SPOT
The Titans liked the fact that they had plenty of depth at the cornerback position a year ago. They’d better enjoy it while they can or be prepared to pay up. Finnegan is approaching restricted free agency, and will have to be tendered at a high level, while Hill, a former starter, and King are both heading to the final years of their contracts. Locking up Finnegan long-term is a must, and the question for the front office to answer is how much they value Hill and/or King, especially with Harper getting up in years.