Last year’s Carolina Panthers stunned the NFL, going 15-1 in the regular season and dominating their two postseason opponents, NFC stalwarts Arizona and Seattle, and reaching the Super Bowl. It wasn’t so much a Cinderella tale as domination, Carolina making mincemeat of their opponents and smothering them on defense.
A key cog in that defense, again one of the top two in the NFL, was young corner Josh Norman. Norman, a product of FCS Coastal Carolina, a small school in neighboring South Carolina, rose to a starter in his first season. A rocky end to his rookie season put him back on the bench, however, where he remained in 2013 and the beginning of the 2014 season. Norman shined once he got his starting spot back, becoming one of the top four coverage corners in the league, and carried that momentum into the 2015 season.
Norman anchored a Carolina defense that physically dominated opponents, rarely allowing breathing room and coasting through most of their games. Carolina’s front seven aided Norman by providing insane pressure, and allowing Norman and Bene Benwikere to gamble over the top in coverage.
He neared the end of his rookie deal, however, and after a stellar season, sought a major payday in the offseason, seeking to become among the highest-paid corners in the NFL.
This is where things got tricky. Panthers GM Dave Gettleman told reporters that while they felt they wanted Norman back, they would not tie up major cap space to retain his rights. As the months waged following the Panthers Super Bowl defeat, reports circulated that the Panthers and Norman were far away on a deal, with Norman seeking between $16-17 million and the Panthers aiming for the vicinity of $12-14 million. All the while, Gettleman’s narrative to the media remained constant: Norman is a luxury, not a need.
This all came to a head in late April, when the Panthers announced they had rescinded the franchise tag, ultimately making Norman a free agent. Norman tried to reverse and sign the tag immediately, but the Panthers had moved on. Just two days later, Norman reluctantly signed a massive five-year, $75 million deal with the Washington Redskins, and just like that one of the NFL’s top corners had changed teams.
In the months that have followed, Norman has embraced his life in Washington, while still remaining honest in saying that he had no intentions of leaving Carolina. The Panthers responded by using three of their top four picks in this year’s draft on corners, and adding a few in free agency.
So what comes next? Where do Washington, with Josh Norman, and Carolina without him, go heading in to next season?
For Washington, they nabbed a great young corner to build their defense around. But Norman will face much more problems in the nation’s capital than he did in Carolina. During his career, Norman has been a 3-4-cover corner. When matched up with the opposing team’s best receiver, Norman has excelled, but hasn’t exactly been a lockdown man defender. But this is not a fault of Norman’s: he’s never had to do it. In Carolina, the Panthers used their front seven and their two outside linebackers to drop in coverage or blitz, and had Bene and Josh over the top to provide leverage on passes over the top. Norman and Bene were both afforded chances to get into plays and disrupt, having Tre Boston and the other safeties and linebackers, like All-World players Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, to provide support in busted coverage.
In Carolina, everything Norman did was designed, with plays providing him to either side of the field as a security blanket and disrupter, and less of a man corner. While Josh has played as a man corner before, it hasn’t come nearly as much as he’s going to be asked to in Washington.
Yesterday, Norman addressed the media in Washington before OTAs and talked about how he’s adjusting in Washington. He made not of many “similarities” between Carolina and Washington, but that Washington’s system would allow him to “be more free”. He likened it to “chaos” on defense, with Norman being able to “create my own matchups”.
This is an optimistic way of saying Norman is going to be burdened with much more of the defensive liability than he was in Carolina. Norman is still surrounded by star talent, with DeAngelo Hall, Breshaud Breeland, David Bruton, and others in the secondary to help with the workload. But with a less than stellar front seven, including a weak linebacker core, Norman is going to see more targets, and more help in run support, which he did sparingly in Carolina.
For Carolina, the Panthers will look to plug and place. Losing Norman is hardly a small deal for the Panthers, but Gettleman wasn’t wrong when he said that Norman wasn’t a necessity to the Panthers’ style of defense. The Panthers don’t need shutdown corner so much as they need smart cover corners. Bene Benwikere and Robert McClain, who were both big contributors on last years defense, will be depended on, and are more than capable. The Panthers have youth behind them, however, with Daryl Worley, James Bradberry and Zack Sanchez all rookies. Sanchez and Worley have shown promise so far in camp, but having these guys provide strong support will truly prove if this team is going to survive a loss of Norman. The rest of the defense returns, however, and the Panthers will provide a good system in which the corners can learn and grow.
Losing Norman obviously wasn’t in the plans for Carolina, but I’m not sure it’s a doomsday scenario. If anything, it might be Norman who feels the pinch of this deal, as now the defensive focus has switched to the ‘Dark Knight’.
If anything, we’ll have a great game to watch when the Panthers meet the Redskins in Week 15 next season.
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) June 11, 2016