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Fearless Finnegan: Samford CB Emerging as one of NFL’s best
NASHVILLE, TN — You were a nice story, but moxie and guile only take you so far. You’re fast, and certainly not afraid, but do you really think a seventh-round pick can go a third year without being exposed?
Those kinds of thoughts may plague the mind of Cortland Finnegan, but talking with the Titans’ starting cornerback makes that hard to believe. Instead, Finnegan unveils a different thought pattern – this one centered on getting Tennessee back to the Super Bowl.
He prefers keeping his individual goals secondary, concentrating on them only as a catalyst of the larger story. If he gets better, he figures his team will, too.
As for what kind of corner he wants to be, he can’t decide between a coverage guy or a bruising tackler.
“Let’s just go with a guy that made a difference,” Finnegan said. “Both of those go hand-in-hand. You’ve got coverage guys like Prime Time, and then you’ve got someone like [Antoine] Winfield that was just a bone-crusher. I just want to be a good, solid player.”
That’s lofty stuff for the 5-foot-10 anomaly from Samford University. Since the Titans selected him with the 215th pick of the 2006 NFL Draft, Finnegan has transformed from rookie nickel back to 16-game starter.
“He’s played the underdog role during his time here, and rightfully so. A seventh-rounder is a long shot to make a team, let alone become a solid starter,” secondary coach Chuck Cecil said. “He’s taken on the challenge of trying to become the best player that he can be. Complacent is not a word that you would use to describe Cortland.”
Finnegan’s no slouch when it comes to athletic credentials, winning an Ohio Valley Conference track title in the 55-meter dash and breaking the NCAA Division I-AA record for career kick return average at Samford. Receivers such as San Diego’s Vincent Jackson may tower over him at 6-5, but the 44-inch vertical leap Finnegan unleashed during pre-draft workouts helps negate that disadvantage.
But Finnegan’s popularity stems from the feisty aggression that saturates him on game days. Cameras usually catch him wrangling with opponents, facemask pressed against facemask. Finnegan’s not looking to fight but wouldn’t mind if he provoked a receiver or two.
In addition to his coverage skills, Finnegan is a hard-hitting tackler, often playing bigger than his size.
“Sometimes when you’re talking to them, you get into their head. They may forget the route or they may get a personal foul. It’s all about getting them out of their game,” Finnegan said. “A lot of times, I feel like I’m not the best corner on this team. I’ve always got to do something extra.”
Whatever the reason, Finnegan gives pause to players looking to intimidate. On the first day of camp, rookie tight end Jamie Petrowski caught a pass with No. 31 in coverage, jogging toward the end zone to finish the drill. Finnegan caught Petrowski and whacked the football to the grass.
“Nobody gets into it with Cortland,” said a fan, unable to resist a ‘my football player can beat up your football player’ sidesmile.
Cecil said by embodying that reputation, Finnegan creates a physical presence that squelches opposing running backs sent scurrying toward the sideline by the front seven.
“He’s pretty fearless, basically, which is nice,” Cecil said. “We went from [30th] to fifth in the league in [rush] defense, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that our corners played better. They really set the edge for us and tackled, and that was a nice improvement.”
Finnegan played free safety in college and relishes what opportunities he does get to lower the boom at cornerback, feeling like it’s his role to energize the team with his antics. A runt of a youngster, he points to getting beat up on the football field as the genesis of his scrappy play. Despite a blossoming respect around the NFL, in his mind, there will always be doubters.
“That’s just something I put on my shoulder being that I’m the smallest guy and I’m a seventh-round pick. People still count me out to this day,” Finnegan said. “A lot of bigger guys, they talk all kinds of crazy to you, so you’ve got to play with emotion. Just being feisty, man, I love to mix it up. I love hitting.”
Finnegan is as approachable and respectful off the field as he is doggedly aggressive on it. He’s not quite timid, but he brushes off questions about his personal accomplishments. He laughs candidly when asked if he can still get better.
“You’ve got to improve, because they’ve constantly got a draft,” Finnegan said. “I hope hard work correlates into getting better. We’ll see.”
Veteran teammate Nick Harper suspects opposing quarterbacks are starting to take stock and stay away.
“If you’ve been making plays against some of the top receivers in the league, they definitely give you your respect. By no means is it college where they’re going to just throw at you either way,” Harper said.
As the profile of ‘Cortland Finnegan, football star’ matures, he’s ever mindful of the rest of his life. One of the most active Titans in the community, Finnegan said he wishes more athletes would take initiative as role models in an often-noxious sports environment.
“That’s big, because when much is given, much is required,” Finnegan said, voice softening with emotion. “They put football players on some kind of platform, and I don’t think that’s the way it should be.
“I think every football player should want to give back. That’s just something I pride myself on doing because at the end of the day, I’m human, too. I love people and I love what it means to people to give back to them.”
Fearless Finnegan: Titans CB emerging as one of NFL’s best
By Christopher Smith, Titans Online
Photo Credit: Donn Jones/Titans Online