It’s been a while since the Tennessee Titans had an undisputed leader of the entire defense — a “defensive quarterback” so to speak.
In the early and mid 2000’s, linebacker Keith Bulluck was that player. His charisma and on-field play set a standard for the Titans’ defense. In fact, he began a Tennessee tradition of reserving red gloves for playmakers.
A number of defensive leaders have emerged in Tennessee since Bulluck’s departure in 2010. Among them are safety Chris Hope, cornerback Cortland Finnegan, and safety Michael Griffin. However, none filled the vacancy left by Bulluck.
With this in mind, it is worth speculating: Will there emerge a defensive quarterback for the Titans in 2016?
The biggest playmakers on defense next season look to be lineman Jurrell Casey, cornerback Jason McCourty, and linebackers Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan and Wesley Woodyard. The five have played an average of 6.6 seasons in the NFL.
One could argue that each one of these players has the potential to fill Bulluck’s former role, particularly one of the three linebackers since they play at the intersection of the defensive line and the secondary.
Yet, among the five, McCourty might have the best opportunity next season.
With the release of Michael Griffin in February, and with the signing and drafting of six new defensive backs, McCourty is now the longest-tenured Titans’ player in the secondary, and he recognizes his opportunity to bring the group together as their leader.
“I think this time right now, [the offseason], is the time for [the secondary] to come together — things like going out to eat, going bowling, just different things to build that chemistry so everybody can get to know each other, so when we take the field … we have that confidence.”
Cornerback is admittedly not a conventional position for leadership of the entire defense. As stated earlier, linebacker is conducive to leadership because the position sits at the intersection of the defensive line and the secondary. Safety is also conducive to leadership because the position sees the entire field.
This narrative is nuanced in Tennessee though. A cornerback has the opportunity to considerably improve the Titans’ record next season because, in 2015, the team lost five games due to big pass plays in the fourth quarter.
Consider Johnny Manziel’s 50-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin in Week 2; Andrew Luck’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Phillip Dorsett in Week 3; Tyrod Taylor’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan in Week 5; Blake Bortles’ 5-yard touchdown pass to Julius Thomas in Week 11; and Derek Carr’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Seth Roberts in Week 12.
These factors therefore favor McCourty’s becoming the next Bulluck-like leader. He has the opportunity not only to mentor the new defensive backs in Tennessee but also to improve the Titans’ record by guiding the secondary to better play.
A potential hurdle to McCourty’s success is how the cornerback rebounds from injury.
McCourty missed twelve games in 2015 because of successive hernias. He suffered the first hernia during the 2015 training camp, which caused him to miss the opening three games of the season. He then played four games before suffering the second hernia, which ousted the veteran from the final nine games of the season.
After months of recovery, McCourty says he is “back to 100 percent.”
His recover is a result of diligence. McCourty, who normally spends a month of the offseason relaxing, took no breaks during the most-recent offseason as he rehabbed and strengthened his groin. The hope is to play every game in 2016; a feat he accomplished in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
McCourty’s narrative unfolds in nine, short weeks when the 2016 NFL season kicks off.
Whether McCourty becomes the Titans’ next defensive quarterback is a big “What If.” Regardless of the outcome, general manger Jon Robinson looks upon McCourty to be a leader of the secondary next season.
“He is a vocal guy out there, and is an elder statesman in that group,” Robinson said during OTAs. “He’s helping coach those guys up and bring them along. I haven’t seen any physical, residual effects from the injury, so we are really counting on him to go out there and produce like he is capable of.”