NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans will be without two of last season's starting defensive backs after releasing cornerback Malcolm Butler and safety Kenny Vaccaro. That means a defense that ranked 29th in passing yards allowed (277.4 yards per game) and allowed opponents to convert an NFL-worst 51.9% of their third downs has some new holes to fill.
"If you look at the situation for us this past year as it relates to our defensive performance, I am real big on accountability," safety Kevin Byard said. "I am always going to look at myself first. And I think when you look at our entire defense as a whole last year, it is everybody's fault we didn't play better."
It wasn't all bad, as the Titans did finished with 15 interceptions last season, which ranked seventh in the NFL and were the most by the Titans since 2012 (19) -- although Butler was tied for the team lead with four of those picks.
Cutting Butler saved the Titans $10.2 million, while Vaccaro's release trimmed another $3.9 million off the salary cap. The likely free-agent departure of nickel back Desmond King magnifies the problem in the secondary.
It's unlikely that the Titans will reinvest the bulk of the new cap space into the defensive backfield, but Tennessee would be wise to consider adding a veteran. Let's take a look at where things stand for the Titans' defensive backs and who could be a good fit in the free-agent market which opens this week.
Third-year safety Amani Hooker is set to become a starter next to Kevin Byard now that Vaccaro is gone. Hooker played only 41.8% of the defensive snaps last season, but his four interceptions tied Butler for the team lead. Dane Cruikshank played in only two games last season due to an undisclosed injury during training camp and a groin injury later in the season. But he will likely occupy a reserve role similar to the one Hooker had last season.
Veteran free-agent options
Tartt played in only seven games last season before a bout with turf toe landed him on injured reserve. He finished with 30 tackles, an interception and four passes defended. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Tartt established himself as a physical player who can have a presence in the box against the run. That would come in handy after the Titans lost a tone-setter in Vaccaro.
Mills finished with 59 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception last season. The fifth-year veteran is an ultra-aggressive defensive back who is capable of lining up at cornerback, safety and nickel. He can also be used in blitz packages off the edge or as a matchup piece against move tight ends and bigger receivers. Mills' passionate play would fit right in with the Titans, who place an emphasis on players who love football.
The Titans essentially had to choose between Butler at a $14.2 million cap hit or Adoree' Jackson at $10.2 million. Jackson will start at left cornerback, while 2020 second-round pick Kristian Fulton is the likely starter in place of Butler. Breon Borders and Kareem Orr return as reserve cornerbacks.
Veteran free-agent options
Breeland started 26 games over the past two seasons for the Chiefs and had seven tackles and an interception in Kansas City's 31-20 win over the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. The eighth-year cornerback is an aggressive player who would bring veteran leadership to the Titans' secondary while logging snaps on the outside if Jackson or Fulton bumped inside in nickel packages. Breeland had nine passes defended, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 2020.
Alexander is a spunky cornerback who prefers to press receivers at the line of scrimmage. That would be a welcome break from last season when Titans cornerbacks were often asked to line up 10 yards off the ball on third-and-10 or shorter.
The sixth-year corner started 10 games for the Bengals last season and finished with 47 tackles, six passes defended and an interception. Alexander had his best season in 2018 when he posted seven tackles for loss, five QB hits, four sacks and 10 passes defended for the Minnesota Vikings as a nickel corner. He brings a feisty mentality that should remind Titans coaches of Butler.
The Titans opened the season with rookie Chris Jackson as the primary nickel corner. GM Jon Robinson sought to improve Tennessee's defense by trading for King in exchange for a 2021 sixth-round pick to the Los Angeles Chargers. King played 40.1% of the snaps for the Titans defense last season, all of which came as the nickel back. It's likely that King will be moving on, which would leave a void.
Veteran free-agent options
The Lions released Coleman two years after signing him to a four-year, $36 million contract. Bringing the University of Tennessee product to Nashville won't be cheap, but it would solve the Titans' need for a nickel corner for years to come. Coleman started 16 games (mostly in the slot) in two seasons with the Lions, breaking up 14 passes and making one interception.
Hilton is probably the best free-agent defensive back match for the Titans. The fifth-year veteran finished with three interceptions, three sacks, five QB hits and eight tackles for loss in 12 games last season.
Despite his smaller size (5-foot-9, 184 pounds), Hilton is a difference-maker when asked to blitz from the nickel. The pressure and ability to impact the quarterback and stifle the run game that Hilton possesses would provide a jolt to the Titans' anemic pass rush that finished with only 19 sacks last season.
Hilton is the kind of player who commands the attention of the opposing team. Just ask Titans coach Mike Vrabel.
"He jumps off the screen. That’s a guy that has really earned a spot there and plays extremely well, hard, great blitzer, versatile player," Vrabel said of Hilton before a 27-24 loss to the Steelers.