Why Titans could be home to NFL's 'best-kept secret'

MOUNT JULIET, Tenn. -- Kevin Byard is in the middle of a burnout set of push-ups, made more difficult by five-second spurts of simultaneously carrying a 90-pound weight on his back. He's hurting. The Tennessee Titans safety just ran more than 1,500 yards and did a gauntlet of weights, along with explosion and flexibility exercises. It's early April; training camp is nearly four months away. It would be easy to tap out a bit early and call it a day.

But Byard hears his teammate, cornerback Logan Ryan, chirping words of motivation and references to disrespect he knows well.

"Go get 31 [reps]. Back-to-back All-Pros," Ryan chants. "Just a fan? That boy ain't no fan. He ain't no fan."

Byard goes even harder, pushes himself to burnout. He releases a primal yell as he finishes. Ryan jumps in for his set. Cornerback LeShaun Sims is waiting to follow him. By this point, it's clear why a crew of Titans defensive backs are all here at a high school indoor facility 25 miles east of downtown Nashville, working out during their vacation time.

They find fuel in being mislabeled, like Byard being called "just a fan" by Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders despite earning All-Pro honors in his second season. It's a moment that still puzzles and motivates Byard, as he showed by wearing a "just a fan" T-shirt during the Titans' uniform unveiling preview video. Byard is not the only one. Recently signed cornerback Malcolm Butler has been put in a box as a malcontent following his curious Super Bowl LI benching. More motivation.

"I most definitely thought some bad rumors were out there, but you can't let that get to you," Butler said last month. "I know who I am."

So they came here to work in March and April in hopes of forcing the NFL to see them for who they believe they are individually and what they believe they can be as a group: the NFL's best secondary.

"I feel like this is the NFL's best-kept secret," Byard proclaims. "I've never been more confident in myself, my play and my work ethic than I have been right now. Reaching first-team All-Pro so early in my career has given me a boost of confidence. I'm really just getting started. I have a whole other level that I have to push through, and when I push through, I'm going to reach the next one."

There's a new defiant confidence surrounding the Titans secondary, a demand to be respected league-wide and an expectation to be the league's best, knowing it means surpassing teams like Denver and Jacksonville.

On the surface, it seems like an overly ambitious goal for a secondary that finished 25th in pass defense last season. But that was a group with four new starters patched together in the offseason, a unit without a tight cohesion yet and a back end without Butler.

"We're not afraid to say it because we aren't afraid to work for it," Ryan said. "You see a team like Jacksonville; they're doing their thing and fun to watch. Denver has been doing it for years. Those guys weren't afraid to talk about it. That's how we feel.

"You can definitely call your shot, but you have to back it up. You got to walk it like you talk it. That's a song. We're not saying we're the best. We're not saying we're here already. We're saying we want to be. Everybody in the league wants that, but I don't think everybody in the league is working like that. I think our work matches up with what we want."

Byard began working out with his former Middle Tennessee State trainer Jason Spray two weeks after the Pro Bowl, and he recruited his fellow defensive backs to join him. Nearly every Titans defensive back, including Butler, made an appearance at one of the workouts at Mount Juliet High School. Spray pushes them hard.

"I'm chasing greatness. First-team All-Pro, Pro Bowl is not enough for me. I'm trying to get a gold jacket and we chasing rings," Byard said. "If you got that why and it's strong enough, you ain't going to quit," Byard said. "The best thing about this group is we won't fall into the hype. We're going to work."

Ryan added: "We gotta be the best. On our own, not enough. Being solid, not enough. ... All of us gotta do it, we all gotta buy in."

The pieces are there. Byard is the face of the secondary following a 2017 season when he led the NFL in interceptions and takeaways. Fellow safety Johnathan Cyprien was a big signing last year and should be better in 2018 if he can stay healthy. Tennessee is expected to add more safety depth in the draft.

Cornerback could be the Titans' most improved position group thanks to the addition of Butler and continued development of a young group. Ryan, along with Byard, is the leader with two Super Bowl rings and a wealth of big-time experience. Butler also has two Super Bowl rings, and his game-clinching interception in Super Bowl XLIX likely makes him the most accomplished of this crew. Adoree' Jackson, a 2017 first-round pick with unreal athleticism, could match Byard for the most potential after a solid rookie season. Sims and Tye Smith are long, tall cornerbacks with playing experience who should provide great depth.

Butler, of course, is the most intriguing slice of the pie. His name has been dragged through the mud this offseason, but a high-ranking executive told ESPN that he viewed Butler as a "highly competitive and highly instinctive" No. 1 cornerback whose strength is on the outside and sets an example for how to work.

He'll fit right in with this group. And maybe, if the Titans achieve all of their goals, Butler will get another chance to play more than one snap in a Super Bowl.