NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Adoree’ Jackson first met Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau during an April pre-draft team visit. This marked the start of what has quickly become a strong relationship built on confidence.
That day the two discussed Jackson’s 5-foot-10 height, a common knock against the former USC cornerback. LeBeau heard the negatives but had his own opinions. He told Jackson to stand up. He did. Then LeBeau assured Jackson that he wasn’t too short to play cornerback for him.
“That competitive spirit attracted me to him,” LeBeau said. “He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he’s tough and he’s very, very athletic.”
Jackson has been dunking since the eighth grade when he was 5-6, but the height criticisms occasionally bother him. It was special for Jackson to hear those words from LeBeau, and a few weeks later he was a Titan.
“When I saw that he believed in me, that was the best thing I could ever have,” Jackson said. “It just gives me a little more confidence.”
LeBeau glides across the Titans practice field like a man half his age, teaching and sharing pieces of wisdom. He’s chipper. It’s not a coincidence that Jackson and a few other defensive backs are getting some extra work after practice.
The Titans will go as far as Marcus Mariota takes them, but that journey could be thwarted or extended based on the play of this secondary. They were bad last season and are undergoing significant restoration. Luckily they have the perfect man to lead it.
“We have to cut off the big plays,” LeBeau said without hesitation. “That’s an 11-man proposition, but it usually comes down on the secondary even if it isn’t their fault. You’ll know pretty damn quick — are we cutting off those deep passes or are they getting them?”
The Titans had the NFL’s third-worst passing defense last season, giving up an average of 269.2 yards per game. They also were in the bottom seven in 20-plus-yard (56) and 40-plus-yard (12) passing plays allowed last season.
Titans general manager Jon Robinson opened up the checkbook to add cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Johnathan Cyprien, two solid veteran starters. Second-year safety Kevin Byard is moving into a full-time starting role for the first time, but several Titans coaches and players believe he’s on his way to stardom. That leaves the other cornerback spots as the last major question mark.
The incumbent and current leader in the clubhouse is the physical, long-armed LeShaun Sims. His teammates call him “Mouse” because of his quiet, reserved demeanor. On the field, he’s a disciplined press cornerback who played well as a rookie last season.
“LeShaun, he’s good at the line. He’ll get his hands on you,” receiver Rishard Matthews said. “LeShaun works his technique and uses his feet to his advantage.”
Brice McCain, a veteran slot cornerback, and Jackson have been competing primarily on the second team. The rookie has to earn his role, but he keeps impressing.
Jackson made a great interception during Monday’s one-on-ones playing tight coverage on a deep ball down the sidelines. He turned his head at the perfect time to snag the interception. It couldn’t have been taught better, and Jackson might be the only cornerback on the team with the instincts to pull it off.
“Adoree’ is like a jackrabbit; he’s quick with really good ball skills,” Matthews said. “Adoree’ will wait for you to make a move and jump you.”
Cyprien says Jackson is ready. On most days, LeBeau agrees. Jackson’s natural ability and athleticism will give the Titans a new dimension they haven’t had on defense or special teams in a while.
Where Sims has the advantage over Jackson right now is consistency. Jackson’s potential is tantalizing, but he’ll be caught out of position when he loses his technique or guesses too much. Titans coach Mike Mularkey said consistency will determine whether Jackson wins a starting role.
Two-thirds of the Titans’ 2016 defensive snaps were against sets with three or more receivers, LeBeau said. It means the competition is less about Sims and McCain vs. Jackson and more about needing all three plus Ryan. The nickel cornerback is a starter in today’s NFL, and the dime cornerback is a top reserve.
All four cornerbacks have different strengths, proving there’s no universal LeBeau cornerback. It does pose the question of what makes a cornerback successful in LeBeau’s blitz-happy scheme.
“I coached Rod Woodson and I played with Lem Barney. Anybody who displays those characteristics are what you’re looking for,” LeBeau said. “The basics are can they stay close to guys? Every corner is going to get himself into a little trouble every now and then; how quickly can he get himself out of trouble? Then can you get a guy on the ground?”
The Titans front seven remains the heart of their defense with Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan and Avery Williamson taking leadership roles. The secondary’s job is just to focus on playing.
Opposing offenses know how much the Titans struggled against the pass last season, and the secondary will certainly be tested often in 2017. LeBeau can’t wait to see which players embrace it and who retreats.
“How players face adversity is the trust test for how far they’ve come,” LeBeau said. “I know Kevin Byard is going to fight through it because I’ve seen him do it. With Adoree’ and the other first-year players, we’re going to have to see.”