Titans Offseason Positional Analysis - Nickelbacks
When the Titans drafted Cortland Finnegan in the seventh round of the 2006 draft some people wondered what position he would play. A safety in college, Finnegan was listed as a "DB" by the Titans when they drafted him. They touted his 40-yard times of 4.33 and 4.35 at his Pro Day and hinted he could also be a cornerback.
Finnegan quickly settled in as the nickelback during training camp last year, moving ahead of Vincent Fuller, who started the 2005 season as the nickel before breaking his ankle. The decision to play Finnegan at nickel paid immediate dividends, which continued throughout the season.
The Titans also have three other experienced nickelbacks, which gives them a variety of options in the secondary. These options are dependent on other moves the Titans may make at corner and safety.
First, here's a look at the players, to be followed by the options the Titans have.
Cortland Finnegan - The Titans' best nickel, he might also be their second-best cornerback. Jeff Fisher was asked why he didn't move Finnegan to corner last year, and he was kind to Reynaldo Hill by saying that doing so would weaken both positions. Finnegan did start one game at corner when Hill was sidelined with an injury and played fairly well. He may have the speed of a corner and the instincts of a safety, but he can also hit like a linebacker, despite his relatively small size.
Vincent Fuller - I sang the praises of Fuller as a rookie both before and after he broke his ankle. Both a safety and corner in college at Virginia Tech, he was the starting nickel in his rookie year. Vince didn't recover sufficiently from the broken ankle as expected, opening the door for Finnegan to win the job last year and allowing Lamont Thompson to remain the starter at free safety. Fuller played mainly in dime packages and on special teams last year.
Andre Woolfolk - A first-round draft selection in 2003, Woolfolk has been a major league bust thus far. Sidelined due to injuries for much of his first two years, he finally became a full-time starter at cornerback in 2005, only to lose his job to rookie seventh-round draft pick Hill. Woolfolk has had more success playing inside as the nickel than he had outside at corner. A big and strong guy for a corner, he can be physical in the slot. This is the final year on Woolfolk's contract.
Michael Waddell - Nicknamed "Rabbit" for his speed, Waddell has never lived up to the expectations for him to be a productive corner and return specialist. He missed all of last season with a knee injury, which he claimed occurred while playing at home with his son. A fourth-round pick in 2004, Waddell has to do a lot to give the Titans a reason to keep him on the roster this year. He has some experience at nickel and was productive as a gunner in the 2005 season.
Since Finnegan, Fuller, and Woolfolk can all play another position besides nickel, the Titans have several options on who plays where. The versatility of Finnegan and Fuller will be helpful here.
If the Titans are unable to upgrade the corner position through free agency or the draft, Finnegan could move to corner.
If the Titans decide to part ways with free safety Lamont Thompson, Fuller and Calvin Lowry will compete for that job.
Woolfolk could challenge for the nickel job if Finnegan and Fuller move. He should remain on the team as a backup corner, if nothing else.
Waddell's time as a Titan is likely over. Not even a good showing again as a gunner should save his job.
My best guess six months in advance is that the Titans will upgrade at corner, allowing them to keep Finnegan at nickel. I hope to see Fuller back at full speed and full strength to compete with Lowry for the free safety spot. Woolfolk can provide depth and special teams play but has no upside.