The Tennessee Titans experienced quite the rollercoaster of a draft weekend. It was undeniably headlined by the devastating trade that sent disgruntled superstar wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles. Several additional intriguing storylines revealed themselves throughout the course of the weekend. The Titans used the first-round selection they received in exchange for Brown’s services on what they hope is his replacement in former Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks. General Manager Jon Robinson later created more talking points by trading up in the third round to select former Liberty quarterback Malik Willis. Willis arrives in Nashville with exciting expectations considering his Day Two draft slot as the Titans hope to discover their franchise quarterback of the future.
While all of these topics carry plenty of intrigue and will be closely dissected by the fan base in the coming weeks, I’m currently more interested in discussing what the Titans did in the second round. The Titans entered the 2022 NFL Draft without a second-round selection as a result of the Julio Jones trade from last offseason. Jones’ Titans career turned out to be catastrophic, and an aging Titans roster was set to feel the absence of that second-round pick. Robinson ultimately acquired one via a second draft-day trade, this time with the New York Jets. While several fans were expecting the Titans to draft a second receiver, or even an offensive linemen with the No. 35 overall selection, the fan base was instead shocked when Houston Oilers legend Billy “White Shoes” Johnson stepped to the podium and announced the Titans were selecting former Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary.
My initial reaction was that it felt like a luxury selection for a franchise that could ill-afford to make one, particularly following the Brown trade, and when weighing the less-than-ideal offensive supporting cast currently surrounding starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Titans owned one of the league’s best-performing defenses last season, and they return 10 of 11 starters on that side of the ball. The one departing starter is veteran cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins, who was released from his contract due to salary cap-related issues. The Titans were prepared to move on from Jenkins partially due to a plethora of young talent at the cornerback position. Kristian Fulton developed into a shutdown boundary cover-man in 2021, and the future is extremely bright for him. Robinson drafted Caleb Farley with his first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, and despite losing the majority of his rookie campaign due to first recovering from offseason back surgery, and secondly tearing his ACL against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7, all early indications are that Farley is primed to step into a starting role opposite Fulton in 2022. In fact, Robinson and Vrabel recently heaped praise on Fulton, calling him “lightyears ahead” from where he was at this point last year. The Titans also drafted Elijah Molden with a top-100 selection in 2021, and the former Washington standout quickly made the nickel position his own as a rookie. Furthermore, Robinson re-signed veteran cornerback Buster Skrine earlier this offseason, who played well for the team down the stretch. Chris Jackson is another proven commodity that gives them good depth in the defensive backfield. So why ignore the glaring needs on the offensive side of the ball and draft McCreary with a premium selection?
It’s a question I asked myself time and time throughout the course of the weekend. I eventually had to separate Roger McCreary the prospect in my mind, and Titans fans are probably best served doing the same going forward. McCreary was a prospect I was extremely high on going into the 2022 NFL Draft. He’s as competitive and feisty as any cornerback I’ve ever personally scouted. Scouting McCreary against Alabama was one of the more enjoyable single-game-experiences for me throughout this pre-draft process. Throughout the course of that contest, Alabama threw the ball in McCreary’s direction on a fairly consistent basis (18 times, to be exact). I never got the feeling that it was because Head Coach Nick Saban held a low opinion of McCreary as a cornerback and wanted to attack him, but rather because Auburn trusted him to shut down Alabama’s imposing receivers and routinely tasked him with eliminating Alabama’s go-to pass-catchers. Alabama is going to throw the ball to their playmakers regardless. McCreary certainly allowed some receptions throughout the course of that contest, but I was not only thoroughly impressed by the plays he made, but also by his willingness to battle and compete against some of the most impressive pass-catchers in the nation. I eventually came away with a mid-to-late first-round grade on McCreary.
McCreary’s path to earning playing time will be fascinating to monitor. Our own James Foster (@NoFlagsFilm) recently brought up an excellent point regarding McCreary’s potential usage. Per his data-tracking, the Titans ran dime personnel on 23% of their defensive snaps, and it was consistently the “big dime” with three cornerbacks and three safeties on the field. Defensive Coordinator Shane Bowen could consider moving Molden to the vacant Dane Cruikshank role, with McCreary taking up duties in the slot. Many believed McCreary is destined for the nickel due to a lack of desirable arm length. New safety Theo Jackson is another option to replace Cruikshank in “big dime” looks.
It’s ultimately a difficult situation to sort through. If Robinson drafted McCreary due to a lack of internal faith in Farley, fans won’t allow him to forget that he drafted Farley with a premium first-round selection just one year after drafting Isaiah Wilson. It’s probably silly to wonder if McCreary’s selection has a long-term impact on Fulton, but I can’t help but to allow my mind to ponder the possibility. Perhaps we’re all a little oversensitive following the A.J. Brown contract situation, myself included. Fulton is entering his third professional campaign in 2022, and 2023 will serve as the fourth and final season of his rookie contract. He’ll likely be due an extremely sizable raise in pay if he’s able to continue the form he captured in 2021.
It’s worth noting cornerbacks are in high demand in today’s pass-happy league. Every action has a reaction in a copycat league, and the out-of-control receiver market will force defenses to roster an abundance of capable corners. McCreary adds to what’s already an extremely promising, capable, and exciting cornerback room. It’s also extremely unlikely that Fulton, Molden, and Farley will make it through a 17-game regular-season unscathed. Injuries happen, and the chances of Tennessee’s three starting cornerbacks making it through the entire year without a missing single contest is less than likely. The depth McCreary has added to the position will almost certainly come in handy at some point this season.
I also believe concerns regarding his athletic profile are largely misfounded. There’s no denying McCreary’s performances at the NFL Scouting Combine and Auburn’s Pro Day left something to be desired. McCreary disappointingly ran the 40-yard dash in a middling 4.50 seconds. McCreary’s vertical jump of 31 inches and broad jump of 116 inches were equally as disappointing. In this case, I don’t believe the testing matches the tape. I personally never came away from McCreary’s film with concerns regarding his athletic profile. My evaluation indicated McCeary possessed exceptional short-area quickness and reactive athleticism. He’s extremely competitive at the catch point despite having shorter arms. He flawlessly flips his hips and remains in-phase with his assigned target. Auburn also prepared McCreary to play in a man-heavy scheme going forward, which makes him an ideal fit for Bowen’s defense.
Questioning the allocation of resources is fair. There’s a good reason many expected the Titans to use that second-round selection on the offensive side of the ball. Robinson opted to draft another cornerback instead, one that happens to be an excellent prospect. If McCreary becomes a full-time starter in Tennessee’s defensive backfield by his second or third professional campaign, it’s fair to question or wonder what that means for Fulton or Farley.
I feel comfortable predicting McCreary will develop into a high-level NFL cornerback. Time will tell how that would impact the remainder of the roster.