Titans' CB investment, including Malcolm Butler, should pay off in playoffs

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For the second consecutive season, the Tennessee Titans' biggest early offseason splash came at cornerback. Adding Malcolm Butler to a cornerback group that also features Logan Ryan and Adoree' Jackson is the sort of move that should pay off in January.

The Titans' defensive back group, which also includes All-Pro safety Kevin Byard and safety Johnathan Cyprien, now has the talent to compete with the top offenses in the AFC (New England, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles Chargers). The Butler move makes this group a team strength.

What are the Titans getting in Butler? Well, he's admittedly coming off a rocky 2017 season that hit bottom when he was benched during Super Bowl LII. But he'll be highly motivated to change the narrative and he said he'll "most definitely" have a chip on his shoulder. The odds are on him bouncing back in an environment more conducive for his success.

One high-ranking scout told ESPN that he viewed Butler as a No.1 cornerback and believed his five-year, $61.25 million contract with the Titans was on point with the value a player of his caliber should receive in free agency.

"He's highly competitive and highly instinctive. If you're building a team, he's a great example of how to work," the scout said. "He has some limitations like a lack of top-end speed and his strength is playing outside. He may have trouble retaining a lot of information quickly, but he'll match up with receivers and cover them up completely."

Butler's ability to play aggressive man coverage and fight to get his hands on the ball will come in big when the Titans, who ranked 25th in the NFL in pass defense in 2017, play top-end receivers. Butler has 44 pass breakups and eight interceptions since 2015, per Pro Football Focus.

"I got that undrafted mentality," said Butler, a Vicksburg, Mississippi, native who played football at Hinds Community College and Division II West Alabama before getting a two-day tryout to make the Patriots in 2014. "When I first got to the NFL, I got my first check; I thought I was the richest man in the world because I know where I come from. The money is what it is, but I love football more than I love money. It ain't about the money. I love this game."

Ryan and Butler share a physical style of playing football. They also have the advantage of playing together from 2014 to 2016 with the New England Patriots. They are good friends, and Butler had a wide smile while reminiscing about the success they had together.

"I got the fast guy. He got the biggest guy," Butler said. "We gonna communicate when them bunches come up. We got great communication and great chemistry."

"He said, 'C'mon man, let's get this reunion back together. The same one-two punch, [now] with me, you and Jackson.'"

Ryan and Jackson played starting-caliber football in 2017, with the latter making drastic improvements throughout the season. Ryan is the leader of the group. Jackson has elite potential. But the Titans were often beaten when teams went to three-receiver sets, exploiting that fifth defensive back.

The Titans saw that and invested in a big upgrade. They're spending $12.25 million per year on Butler to go along with the $10 million annually for Ryan and the first-round pick they used to get Jackson in 2017. That's a lot, but cornerback is probably neck and neck with pass-rusher as an NFL team's most important defensive position.

So, who will be the true No. 1 guy? Well, maybe there won't be one. Butler would be the most likely to be considered the No. 1 cornerback here, but even he selflessly said, "We're all No. 1. We're a team."

Most NFL defenses essentially have three starters at cornerback, even if just two are officially starters. I'd imagine all three corners will play at least two-thirds of the snaps in an average game under defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

My early prediction on the Titans' rotation would have Butler filling one outside cornerback spot, while Jackson plays the other and Ryan plays in the slot. Ryan and Jackson both have the flexibility to play inside and outside based on matchups, and it's likely Pees will use that flexibility to his advantage.

Ryan also has the versatility to play some safety if the Titans want more coverage at that position in sub packages. Jackson was used by the end of the season to trail speedy threats like Kansas City's Tyreek Hill, and that role should only continue in 2018.

The Titans still will add some depth at safety, but this is setting up to be their most talented defensive back group in a long time. It's a safe bet that Tennessee will finish better than 25th in pass defense next season.