In the minds of most, it is no contest.
The process to fill Cortland Finnegan’s role as the figurative head of the Tennessee Titans cornerbacks is not so much a search as it is a succession. Nearly two months before the start of training camp, that issue effectively is settled.
Jason McCourty is the oldest and most experienced of the group, and therefore is the man, so to speak.
There is an actual competition to take Finnegan’s spot on the field. McCourty, though, seemingly is exempt from that challenge as well.
“We have to take [Finnegan’s] spot,” Alterraun Verner said. “So everybody who’s not Jason McCourty is vying for that spot. It’s definitely a great opportunity and a great chance to make yourself that person for many years to come.”
A certain bravado is required to play the most conspicuous position on defense. The potential to look bad is almost constant. The best performances are often ignored because they result in the ball going somewhere else.
Those who excel at cornerback, therefore, are typically outspoken. They’re not afraid to say what they think — on the field and off — and that often makes them a spokesman for the entire team and gives them a place of prominence in the meeting and locker rooms.
That was the case with Finnegan, a former defensive captain who missed just three games over the six seasons he was with the franchise and started in 85 percent of contests in which he played. The same was true of Samari Rolle and, to a lesser degree, Andre Dyson in the franchise’s early years in Tennessee.
“It feels natural for me,” McCourty said. “I was a captain in college. Guys looked up to me. I think it’s kind of like a progression thing. You come into the league, you watch those guys, and you learn from them. As they move on, you step up.”
Now, he’s the one on top.
He’ll be 25 at the start of the season, two years younger than Finnegan, who signed a lucrative free agent deal with St. Louis in March, at the same point in 2011. He also has yet to make his first Pro Bowl, as Finnegan did in 2008.
In terms of personality and approach, he’s also a departure from what had been the norm. He is not the underdog who feels the need to draw attention to himself. McCourty relies more on precision than confrontation and, according to defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, is the most technically sound of the current cornerback group.
“We’ve talked, and he doesn’t even look at himself like that guy or that starter,” Verner said. “But we know that he’s kind of the veteran guy in our group, he’s had the most playing experience out of anybody, and he’s taken a very humble approach to it. He’s not looking down at anybody, thinking that he’s too good. He’s going to work hard just like everybody else.
“I’ll say, for the most part, he’s the safest one just for how he played and how he’s going to continue to play.”
Verner and McCourty actually competed the last two seasons for the starting spot opposite Finnegan. Verner has no designs on taking that battle up a notch for the top spot. Instead, he is more concerned with challenges from the likes of Ryan Mouton, Tommie Campbell and rookie Coty Sensabaugh.
The one guy who takes none of this for granted is McCourty.
“The past two years we competed with each other for the other spot,” McCourty said. “So we pushed each other. That competition is going to make you better.
“I think at cornerback we’ll all be competing. Verner started over me his rookie year. I’m competing myself to go out and play. I think that’s going to make all of us better.”