Early in training camp, Cortland Finnegan pulled a brief disappearing act.
The veteran cornerback walked out for two days due to frustration over what he perceived to be unproductive contract talks, although he initially said via social media that personal reasons were the impetus for his departure. He was contrite upon his return, yet still has not gotten the new deal he wanted.
With the regular season now complete it is impossible to ignore the possibility that Finnegan might soon vanish for good.
The 2008 Pro Bowler is one of the most high-profile of 23 members of the Tennessee Titans for whom this season is the last on their current contracts (five in that group are exclusive rights free agents). That list includes safeties Chris Hope and Michael Griffin, fullback Ahmard Hall and right guard Jake Scott.
“It’s one of the most uncomfortable feelings ever,” Finnegan said. “The fact that for six seasons you’ve been here and you don’t know your future; it’s very uncomfortable.”
Amid all that uncertainty, a look at the franchise’s recent past makes it easy to imagine that Finnegan’s future will be elsewhere.
The seventh-round pick in 2006 just completed his sixth NFL season and for the fifth time appeared in all 16 games. The only time he was sidelined was in 2009, when a hamstring injury kept him out for three games.
Since 1997, only three players — Nick Harper, Samari Rolle and Darryl Lewis — started at cornerback for the franchise in their seventh year or beyond.
Lewis was an eight-year veteran in 1998 before Rolle replaced him the following year, his second in the league. Rolle held that spot through his seventh season before salary cap considerations led the Titans to cut him. Harper was signed in 2007 after six seasons with Indianapolis and held down a job for three seasons.
Over that same period, seven different cornerbacks, including Finnegan, became starters within their first or second seasons.
“I feel, if anything, [defensive coordinator] Jerry Gray re-energized me, as a player, and my career,” Finnegan said. “I think there’s a lot I still have to learn. I have not slowed down by any stretch. I feel I have five or six good ones left in me.”
Finnegan was a valuable and versatile cog for the defense in Gray’s first season. He played cornerback on early downs but moved inside to the slot position in pass packages.
The result was one of his most productive seasons in terms of tackles but fewer interceptions than he has had in other years.
“Cortland is a really smart football player,” Gray said. “He’s a tough guy. He can come up there and take on the run. He can cover tight ends and do those type of things for you, and he can also blitz. When you’ve got a guy who can make those type of plays for you, he’s only going to make your defense better.
“He has the attitude of a linebacker and the cover skills of a corner.”
Ability is probably not the issue. It’s the fact that the roster already has plenty of other cornerbacks — younger cornerbacks — which could be the most significant factor in the Titans’ approach come the start of the new contract year in early March.
To be exact, there are five others, all of whom were third-year veterans or younger in 2011. That included Jason McCourty, the starter opposite Finnegan, Alterraun Verner, who started 12 games when McCourty was injured in 2010, and Ryan Mouton, who spent the entire season on injured reserve.
Rookie Tommie Campbell is a seventh-round draft pick just like Finnegan. Campbell, though, is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds whereas Finnegan is 5-10, 188. And there are those who believe Campbell is the Titans’ fastest player.
Chris Hawkins made the roster as an undrafted free agent — ahead of nine-year veteran Frank Walker — and raised expectations in limited duty.
“We still think Tommie Campbell is a guy, he obviously hasn’t played defense at all since the preseason, but he is another guy we have that has great size and has some upside,” coach Mike Munchak said.
It also is likely to make it easier for general manager Mike Reinfeldt and his staff to show Finnegan the door.
“That is the nature of this game — contracts come up, people move, and people leave,” Verner said. “I can’t even imagine any of these guys leaving, because the two years I’ve been here it’s been basically all of the same people. I’m not looking forward to having that. I’m hoping for the best and hoping everybody stays here. I think we have something good going.”
When it comes to cornerbacks and the Titans, though, there always seems to be another one coming. Campbell’s selection in April made it 11 straight years that the franchise took at least one cornerback in the draft.
Finnegan wants to stay badly enough that he was willing to leave the team for a time to make his point. Now he wants to make sure that if he does have to go, he will do so on good terms.
“This is where it all started for me,” Finnegan said. “This is a place I’ve grown to love, a community and a city I’ve grown to love. It will be tough if it doesn’t work out.
“I think everybody handles it differently. For the most part, I’ll get away from here, do some things and just continue to work on my craft. We’ll see what the future holds. No hard feelings each way.”