Titans' signing of Harper looks much better now

With the suspensions of Pacman Jones and Chris Henry, Tennessee and Cincinnati are left wondering how to replace them, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: April 10, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

When the Tennessee Titans signed unrestricted free agent Nick Harper to a three-year contract in mid-March, team officials insisted that the addition of the former Indianapolis Colts starting cornerback wasn't necessarily an example of foresight, a concession that they knew the suspension of Pacman Jones was imminent.

On Tuesday afternoon, however, with Jones banished by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for the entire 2007 campaign, the free-agency acquisition of Harper four weeks ago certainly seems like a timely one.

Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesFormer Colts CB Nick Harper, center, is now the focus of the Titans' secondary.
A six-year veteran, and arguably the Colts' best cover defender during his tenure with the team, Harper should help the Titans compensate for the loss of Jones, who enjoyed a solid season in the secondary in 2006.

The Titans' first-round choice in 2005, and the sixth player selected that year, Jones started 15 games at right cornerback in 2006. He posted 62 tackles, four interceptions and eight passes defensed as he began to demonstrate his innate coverage abilities. But even with that performance, Tennessee still rated just 27th in the league in pass defense and will need to be significantly better in 2007.

Whether the Titans can improve dramatically in the absence of Jones remains to be seen. But the cornerback unit, bolstered by the addition of Harper, should not lack for depth, at least.

Third-year veteran Reynaldo Hill, a seventh-round draft choice who started 14 games in 2006 and has 24 starts in two seasons, returns at left cornerback. Hill has been a pleasant surprise for the Titans, and the former University of Florida star had 59 tackles and two interceptions last year.

Another late-round choice who has outplayed his draft status is 2006 seventh-round selection Cortland Finnegan of Samford. He has demonstrated considerable promise, and the coaches feel he can make a big step forward in his sophomore NFL season. Finnegan played in all 16 games as a rookie, with two starts, and registered 57 tackles. A one-time college safety, he has the kind of hybrid skills necessary for the nickel corner position and will be the favorite in training camp to win that spot.

Among the other cornerback candidates is four-year veteran Andre Woolfolk, the team's first-round choice in 2003 who is a physically gifted player but has been held back by injuries and has not developed into much more than a special-teams player. Veterans Michael Waddell, who missed all of 2006 with an injury, and Eric King round out the depth chart.

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who prefers single-coverage schemes, may be forced to implement more Tampa 2 style packages to accommodate Harper, but that might have been the case even if Jones hadn't been suspended.

Where the Titans might struggle even more to replace Jones is on special teams. Explosive as a return man, Jones averaged 12.9 yards and scored three times on 34 punt runbacks last season. He also averaged 26.1 yards on 20 kickoff returns. The suspension of Jones and the free-agency departure of Bobby Wade, who signed with Minnesota earlier this spring, means Tennessee is without its top two return men.

Just like the Titans, the Bengals are left wondering how to replace a playmaker. Still, despite some initial optimism from Cincinnati players Tuesday afternoon, the Bengals might be hard-pressed to deal with the absence of standout wide receiver Chris Henry for eight games. In only two seasons, Henry has developed into one of the top No. 3 wideouts in the NFL, playing with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

He is also one of the premier receivers in the red zone. Henry has 15 touchdown catches in two seasons, a remarkable quotient of a scoring grab every 4.5 receptions. He had nine TDs in 2006 despite missing three games because of league- and team-imposed suspensions. The long, angular Henry, blessed with great speed, is a difficult matchup for opposition secondaries.

"He's the kind of guy who is irreplaceable with what he brings to the game," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said Tuesday afternoon after the suspension was announced. "But other guys are waiting for opportunities, and those guys will fill in. It hurts when you lose anybody. But we have a lot of young guys ready to play."

The top two candidates to fill Henry's spot in the three-wideout offense the Bengals use so liberally are Tab Perry and Antonio Chatman, although both are coming off injuries that truncated their 2006 seasons. Perry has played in just 18 games in two seasons, including only two in '06, and has nine catches for 102 yards and one touchdown.

A four-year veteran, Chatman has appeared in 51 games with five starts, most of them in three seasons with Green Bay. He had 49 catches for 549 yards and four touchdowns for the Packers in 2005, but appeared in just three games for the Bengals last year before suffering a season-ending groin injury.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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