NASHVILLE — An imposing load of a 6-foot-2, 225-pound wide receiver, rookie Traylon Burks turned cornerback Roger McCreary a yard from the line of scrimmage during a red zone drill Monday.
McCreary — all 5-foot-11, 190 pounds of him — gave the bigger man some room early on, but recovered for a split second, returning to Burks’ side at the same time Ryan Tannehill’s pass attempt arrived near the goal line.
The result? Incompleteness.
It became an increasingly common sight during the first week of Tennessee Titans training camp when McCreary left a trail of footballs bouncing off the grass around him.
This was especially the case on this day. McCreery broke up at least five passes during practice, both as a team and in seven-on-seven periods.
“Yeah, he really competed,” Tannehill said of McCreary. “He’s a guy who’s obviously extremely talented and he’s going to come in and play with confidence. You feel like you have an advantage on him and then he finds a way to work his way back in there and he does a good job of playing football when he’s in the zone.”
In a way, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, given how productive McCreary — Tennessee’s No. 2 pick in this year’s draft — was at Auburn. He intercepted six passes and struck out 37 passes in 35 games over his final three seasons, finishing first in the SEC with 16 passes defensed last year.
But there were still some questions raised about how well McCreary would fare at the next level, given that he wasn’t particularly fast (4.50 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine) and had relatively short arms (28 7/ 8 inches).
Compare those numbers, for example, to the Titans’ 2021 first-round draft pick, cornerback Caleb Farley. The 6-foot-2, 197-pound Farley reportedly ran a 4.3 40-yard dash while at Virginia Tech (he didn’t practice at the combine due to injury) and has arms that span 33 3/8 inches .
If such comparisons have bothered McCreary in the past, however, they certainly don’t seem to be bothering him in the early stages of his first NFL training camp.
“I mean, when they talk about shorter arms … I heard it when the draft came and everything, but now I don’t care,” McCreary said. “It’s all football. Doesn’t really matter about short arms or anything. We’re just here to play football, that’s my mentality.”
Another plus for the Titans: McCreary hasn’t been beaten by the team’s wide receiver lineup — a group that includes Burks as well as Nick Westbrook-Ihine (6-2, 211), Dez Fitzpatrick (6-2, 208), Racey McMath (6-3, 217) and Cody Hollister (6-4, 220) among others.
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Specifically, McCreary found himself face-to-face with fellow rookie Burks — the team’s first overall pick in 2022 — on several occasions over the past few days. What looks like a physical mismatch at the line of scrimmage is anything but when the play starts.
“One of my skills is being faster than a guy because they’re bigger and everything,” McCreary said. “That’s what I focus on, even if they push everything else away as well.” It’s all about me reacting quickly and getting right back on their hip.”
Coach Mike Vrabel added, “I know how he did it. He is competitive. It’s usually in the body, a lot of the same stuff we saw in the evaluation process. He rarely makes the same mistake twice.
The Titans already have a stockpile of highly drafted cornerbacks in McCreary, Farley, Christian Fulton (2020 second-round pick) and Elijah Molden (2021 third-round pick).
It’s easy to wonder what the cornerback depth chart will look like if everyone is healthy and on top of their game.
But McCreary’s cause will be helped by the potential ability to play both outside and inside. He didn’t play much in the slot at Auburn, but both McCreary and the Titans believe he can if needed.
“I feel like (defensive back), you have to play inside and outside,” McCreary said. “So it’s really good that I have experience (playing) inside and outside. No matter what position they put me in, I’ll be ready to play.”
The cornerback takeaway: Whether you’re inside or outside, whether you’re hands-off, short or long, you have to find a way to force incompletions.
McCreary is doing just that so far in camp — no matter what the measurements may have predicted.
“We all want the perfect prototype at every position, right?” Ryan Cowden, the Titans’ vice president of player personnel, said. “Give me the height, the length, the speed and everything. But it doesn’t work like that. We don’t get everything.
“If you’re saying the short-handed stuff followed (McCreary) around, well, how many people caught the ball against him? How many times has this been a factor? How many times was he in phase at the top of the break to mirror the receiver’s footwork so there was no window to pass the football? How good is the pocket stabbing technique?’
So far so good.