The Titans had to do something to help their secondary after watching them routinely get torched for the last few weeks. And now they have, pulling the trigger on a trade that sends one of their three 2021 6th round picks to the Chargers in exchange for slot corner Desmond King.
There is a lot to like about this deal from a Titans standpoint. The 6th round pick was their lowest available round after trading their 7th along with Kamalei Correa for a 6th last month. King’s contract — he’s in the final year of his rookie deal — does not put a huge dent in the Titans available cap space for the 2021 season, taking just $1.1-million off their $7.5-million unused cap space that can be rolled into next season. He could also return a compensatory pick in the 2022 NFL Draft if he chooses to sign elsewhere in free agency at the end of this season.
This was as close to “free” as you could get at the trade deadline for a potential impact player.
Who is Desmond King and how can he help the Titans?
The cost was low, but the potential impact is pretty high. At just 25 years old, the former Thorpe Award winner — given to the best defensive back in college football — can best be described, in my opinion, as a young Logan Ryan.
King is 5′-10″ and 200 pounds, almost identical in size to the 5′-11″, 195-pound Ryan.
Like the former Titans corner, he’s also not known for his blazing foot speed. He declined to run at the combine in 2017, citing an abdominal strain, but turned in times in the low 4.5s at Iowa’s pro day (Ryan ran a 4.56 at the combine).
The similarities continue when you look at their play on the field. King is almost exclusively a slot corner, both because of his relative lack of footspeed and because of his ability to impact the game in multiple dimensions from that spot. His 7.5 sacks highlight his ability as a blitzer from that slot position and he’s been solid in run support as well.
King’s collegiate career was highlighted by his 8 interceptions in 2015, helping earn him the Thorpe, but teams largely avoided him in 2016 and after subpar testing numbers, he slid all the way to the 5th round of the draft after being viewed as a potential 1st rounder to start the season.
That fall benefited the Chargers. King pushed himself onto the field quickly, averaging 44 snaps a game and contributing a pick-six, five PBUs, and four sacks as a rookie. His second season was even better, picking off three passes, breaking up another 10, and holding opposing passers to a rating of just 87.1 when targeted. His play at corner along with his contributions as a kick and punt returner — highlighted by his 13.8 yards per punt return including a touchdown — earned him an All-Pro nod.
However, the past two years have been a bit of a mystery. Last season, King gave up 40 catches on 46 passes into his coverage (87%) for 471 yards on passes into his coverage per PFF charting. This year he saw his job taken by veteran corner Chris Harris Jr., who was signed in the offseason and moved into the slot, leaving King to take snaps at safety and as a dime linebacker at times. An injury to Harris moved King back into the slot in Week 4 and he’s played well there since, allowing just 10 catches on 15 targets for 60 yards (just 4.0 YPA).
In Tennessee, King will certainly remain in his preferred slot position, a spot where he’s shined, earning the highest PFF grade in the NFL for slot corners since he was drafted.
King has played too well at the slot corner spot to not believe he can help this team in a spot that has been unsettled in 2020. The Titans original plan appeared to be a cornerback trio of Adoree’ Jackson, Malcolm Butler, and Kristian Fulton with Fulton handling the majority of the slot duties.
That plan went up in smoke before the season even started due to injuries to Fulton — who missed much of training camp with hamstring issue and is now on IR with a knee injury — and Jackson — who remains out with a knee injury. The result has been way more Johnathan Joseph and Chris Jackson (and even Tye Smith and Breon Borders) than we expected to see.
Jackson seemed to be on track for a return in the near future, though a missed practice on Friday has at least raised some concerns about a possible setback. However, Fulton will be out for at least two more games.
We will see when those guys get back, but King at least gives the Titans one acceptable answer in the secondary, joining Malcolm Butler as proven competent cover men.
That likely means less Chris Jackson, not less Johnathan Joseph, but assuming Adoree’ Jackson does return in the next couple weeks, a trio of Butler, Adoree’, and King looks awfully appealing compared to what we’ve seen trot out there over the first seven games.
And while most of the heat is falling on Johnathan Joseph, the slot coverage has been just as bad from Tennessee. Take these numbers below as a hint of the kind of upgrade that King could offer:
King’s passer rating allowed, yards per snap, and snaps per target when working in the slot all rank in the top 10 out of 43 qualifying corners. His 10.6 yards per target makes him the least frequently targeted slot corner in the entire league when he’s in the game.
It’s too early to write off either Fulton or Chris Jackson, but King is a clear instant upgrade at the slot corner spot.
When will King make his Titans debut?
COVID protocols will, unfortunately, make it difficult — though not impossible — for him to play against the Bears on Sunday. King will have to produce five consecutive days of negative tests before he’s allowed to enter the facility. Even if you optimistically assume that he’s able to travel to Nashville today and get a test, that would mean that he’d only be cleared to actually enter the building on Saturday at the earliest.
Mike Vrabel didn’t rule out the idea of King playing against Chicago, but wouldn’t fully commit to the idea either.
Even if he doesn’t get cleared for this Sunday, King will certainly be available for next Thursday’s massive game against the Colts and he obviously has quite a bit of familiarity with Philip Rivers after playing with the Indy quarterback for three seasons with the Chargers.
Could King be re-signed?
The Titans interest in retaining King beyond 2020 will obviously depend largely on his performance for them over the back half of the season and what his market looks like in the offseason. He will join a long list of upcoming Titans free agents, highlighted by Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, Jayon Brown, DaQuan Jones, Jadeveon Clowney, and Vic Beasley among several others.
If King plays at a high level, there is certainly a chance that he could be brought back, but you’d have to think that a move to re-sign King would come with a release of Malcolm Butler, whose contract makes him a prime cut candidate heading into his age 31 season (though he’s played really well lately). We know that Adoree’ Jackson and Kristian Fulton likely will be holding down two of the three starting corner spots, leaving one for Butler, King, or potentially an outside free agent or draft pick.
If King does play well and walks in free agency to sign with another team for good money, he could fetch the Titans a compensatory pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Will this save the Titans putrid defense?
Well, no. There is no single move that could have served as a magic elixir for the entirety of the Titans defense. Even trading for Stephon Gilmore — the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year — would have left Tennessee with pass rush problems, run fit problems, and every other issue that has plagued this unit all year.
But this does move the needle in a positive direction, and combined with Adoree’ Jackson’s eventual return (surely coming soon, right?), should turn arguably the defense’s biggest weakness into a strength.
If King can make quarterbacks squeeze the ball even just a split second longer every now and then, that helps the pass rush get home and (if they can actually tackle the quarterback) convert some of these pressures into sacks.
Would you believe that Jadeveon Clowney and Harold Landry both rank within the top-10 among NFL edge rushers in QB hits? They also check in within the top-20 in total pressures. It’s not like those guys are never getting off blocks, they just aren’t finishing plays. Some of that is their own fault, but some of it falls on the secondary that continues to allow layup after layup to opposing quarterbacks.
King doesn’t have to fix every problem the Titans have though. He just needs to take one glaring weakness and turn it into at least a league average performer. If he can return to his 2018 form — and he has a ton of incentive to do so with free agency looming — that would make this a huge win for the Tennessee defense.