With the 2013 NFL Draft less than a month away, the Tennessee Titans look poised to continue upgrading a roster that underachieved in 2012. Addressing several needs in Free Agency, the Titans strengthened both the offensive and defensive lines, as well as improving the safety position with Pollard and Wilson.
The Titans also received three compensatory picks (97th, 202nd, 248th), further positioning the organization to be creative in the upcoming draft. Now with nine total draft picks and several needs fulfilled, GM Ruston Webster and HC Mike Munchak have the ammunition and flexibility to move up or down as they see fit.
While most NFL pundits list the Titans’ major needs as defensive end and offensive guard, cornerback is just as important. Jason McCourty has already been signed to a long-term deal, but Alterraun Verner will be a free agent after 2013. If the Titans cannot retain Verner, the situation will be dire. It would behoove the organization to be proactive and draft a solid cornerback to either replace Verner in the future, or add to a solid three-man group. Here are the top five cornerback prospects in this year’s draft class:
1. DeMarcus “Dee” Milliner, CB, Alabama
Milliner is considered to be the only future “shutdown” cornerback in this year’s draft class. The Alabama product was often overshadowed by former teammates Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron, but Milliner is finally having his day in the sun. He blazed a 4.37 40-yard dash at the combine, silencing those questioning his straight-line speed. He also shined in the position drills, cementing his status as a top-10 pick. The Titans would absolutely jump at the chance to draft Milliner at 10th overall, but they recognize the chances of him being on the board are slim to none.
The Eagles (4th), Lions (5th), and Browns (6th) are all rumored to be interested, and moving up a few spots in the 1st round can be costly. For example, in last year’s draft the Cowboys traded the 14th and 45th overall picks to move up to 6th overall and draft LSU CB Morris Claiborne. That was surprisingly a good deal for the Cowboys in comparison to previous draft-day trades, but it still cost them a valuable 2nd round pick. Morris Claiborne was also widely regarded as a better prospect than Milliner, and therefore the Titans will take a wait-and-see approach with Milliner.
2. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
With the recent success of big, physical corners such as Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, Xavier Rhodes (pronounced “ZAY-vee-er”) has the size and attitude to attract many NFL suitors. Rhodes excelled in press coverage in 2011 but unfortunately suffered a knee injury at the end of the season. He recovered in 2012 but still showed some tentativeness in his cuts.
Rhodes has been consistently mocked to the Dolphins at 12th overall, and probably won’t fall out of the top 20. If the Titans truly want him, they will most likely have to draft him at 10th to prevent the Dolphins or Buccaneers from swooping in. As the Titans prefer zone coverage, I don’t see the natural fit here. More than likely the Titans will wait to address the cornerback position until a bit later in the draft.
3. Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
GM Ruston Webster has ties to the Pacific Northwest, drawing upon his insight when drafting Jake Locker in 2011. Therefore, many people again see the Husky connection to the Titans. Desmond Trufant, brother of NFL CB Marcus Trufant, had a solid senior season for the Washington Huskies. He then performed exceptionally well at the NFL Combine, raising his stock into the 1st round.
Trufant fits the Titans’ defensive scheme very well. He has exceptional short-area quickness and experience in zone coverage, as well as the size and speed to keep up with receivers on the outside. He will likely be drafted in the mid to late 1st round, so the Titans could potentially trade back and still land him. If Trufant falls far enough, the Titans could even consider trading back into the 1st round or up in the 2nd round to select him.
4. Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
Banks is a classic example of a good player who falls on draft day due to a bad Combine performance. People seem to focus on his disappointing 4.61 40-yard dash instead of his 2012 Jim Thorpe Award, presented to the nation’s top defensive back. Banks is a bit lanky (6’2”, 185 lbs), but he plays aggressively and has superb ball skills. He is also effective in run support and blitzing, never shying from making contact.
Banks was previously considered to be the 2nd best prospect after Milliner, but his subpar 40-time seems to have shaken some believers. Another interesting aspect to Banks is that he has experience playing safety, and he could possibly make the transition back if desired. If he falls into the 2nd round as many expect, the Titans might consider adding Banks to a secondary that struggled to tackle all season.
5. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB, Connecticut
Wreh-Wilson is another example of the taller, physical cornerback that many NFL teams are seeking these days. His combination of length and speed make him desirable, and he plays consistently with attitude. However, what isn’t consistent is his tackling. He often lunges at ball carriers instead of squaring up, but he does have good short area quickness to shed blocks.
Wreh-Wilson will most likely be drafted in the middle rounds, so the Titans could target him to add some depth. He would benefit from the Titans zone coverage schemes, as he lacks elite speed but has good quickness to break up short passes.
Honorable Mention: Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU
It just didn’t feel right not including Tyrann Mathieu in an article about cornerbacks, whether because of his highly publicized off-field issues or his superb athletic talent. Deion Sanders summed it up best, “The kid can ball.” If you watch the NFL Combine or college football at all, you recognize how natural an athlete Mathieu truly is. Yes, he did disappoint with only four reps on the bench press, but a football doesn’t weigh 225 pounds. His stature (5’9”, 186 lbs) also has drawn concern, but “Honey Badger” don’t care.
From Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011 to expulsion from the team in 2012, Mathieu has been working to repair his image and life. He is receiving treatment for substance abuse, as well as working with mentor John Lucas. Undersized and riddled with character concerns, Mathieu is very reminiscent of one such player from West Virginia, Pacman Jones. Both players had catchy nicknames and game-changing ability, also being electric punt returners. Mathieu presents incredible upside but his red flags will drop him down draft boards a bit. A team with established management and leadership should take a chance on Mathieu, but the Titans are a doubtful suitor. Pacman already burned this franchise, and I don’t see the Titans even entertaining that possibility again.
Conclusion: Conventional wisdom says the Titans will either upgrade the offensive or defensive line with the 10th overall pick, but I can certainly see a possible scenario in which they draft a cornerback. If Dee Milliner falls to them, the decision has already been made. If the Titans are especially keen on Rhodes or Trufant, they could hopefully maneuver down the draft board and acquire additional picks. Free Agency was a significant improvement, so hopefully the draft will continue that trend.
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