The 2016 NFL offseason saw an enormous amount of player movement between free agency and the draft. While most players quickly inked new, large contracts, cornerback Josh Norman had to wait to cash in with the Washington Redskins.
The 28-year-old’s career is hitting a vital point as he embarks on a new challenge. His Super Bowl appearance in 2015 was critical for his superstar status, but his fat new contract will put new expectations on his performance. Because of this, Norman’s tenure with the Redskins will determine his legacy more than his breakout 2015 season.
Some may say that Norman was a one-year wonder for the Panthers, but that would be overlooking the groundwork he laid in 10 starts in 2014. His play down the stretch showed massive development from the former fifth-round pick. He rewarded the franchise with four interceptions, two defensive touchdowns and the lowest passer rating allowed in the league.
The timing of his production and the context of his role in the defense created a difficult decision. Norman, who takes on the persona of a different movie character each game, according to The Wall Street Journal's Kevin Clark (h/t CBSSports.com's Jared Dubin), turned down a four-year, $44 million deal from the Panthers, per Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer. Days later, the team rescinded the franchise tag, and he signed with the Redskins.
Though the move surprised Norman, he got over it quickly as the Redskins gave him the best of both worlds: He was paid handsomely and felt wanted, per David Newton of ESPN.
A contract that guarantees $36.5 million in the first two seasons will do that, and that’ll jump to $51.1 million over three seasons if the Redskins keep him that long. His average salary is almost $1 million more than New York Jets superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis, per Spotrac.
Norman faced scrutiny for the first time in 2015, as he was in the spotlight throughout the Panthers Super Bowl run, but the pressure will jump extraordinarily from now on due to his salary. For him to even find the same level of success as he found last year, Norman must either get help from the Redskins or elevate his play. The only thing the Panthers and Redskins have in common is that they play similar coverage schemes, with Cover 2 being their primary strategy.
Cover 2 is meant to devalue the cornerback position as much as possible. Long, physical cornerbacks like Norman usually lack deep speed and hip fluidity, which is why corners who have both don’t last long in the draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars selected 6’1”, 209-pound cornerback Jalen Ramsey fifth overall because he’s got that combination of physical traits and talent.
The Panthers got away with playing 35-year-old Charles Tillman, 32-year-old Cortland Finnegan and 5’9” Robert McClain next to Norman because of their tremendous support around the cornerbacks. With the most athletic linebacker corps maybe in NFL history, the Panthers asked their corners to fill basic responsibilities and not worry much about in-breaking routes. Their mitigation of the position within the scheme helped manufacture a star.
Isolating cornerback performance is something I’ve worked to do over the last three seasons. Regardless of scheme, opposing quarterback quality and the statistical output of a given play, how a cornerback performs can be measured. By charting every route a cornerback faces in coverage and not just limiting analysis to targeted passes, we can get a clearer view of how well a cornerback can actually cover.
Of the 39 cornerbacks I charted in 2014, the average cornerback allowed his receiver to create considerable separation on at least 35 percent of his coverage snaps. The elite cornerbacks that season were losing around 25 percent of the time—or less. Jimmy Smith of the Baltimore Ravens had the best score, with a burn rate of 16 percent. I’m still working on the full data for this past season.
Coming back to Norman, I found him to be within one arm’s length of the receiver to challenge the pass—whether it ever came or not—a paltry 61.1 percent of the time. That’s a burn rate of 38.98 percent throughout 2015, which would have put him among the likes of Denver Broncos corner Aqib Talib and Tennessee Titans corner Jason McCourty. Those are good but far from elite players.
|Josh Norman's 2015 Coverage Chart|
|Route||Losses||Attempts||Burn Rate||2014 NFL Average Burn Rate|
This isn’t meant to say Norman is bad, but the bigger takeaway should be a warning that Norman will struggle and be more of an average corner when he’s asked to do more than play within a specific scheme.
The last big free-agent bust at corner was Nnamdi Asomugha, who infamously struggled with the Philadelphia Eagles after departing from the scheme-friendly confines that the Oakland Raiders gave him. The Redskins must do whatever it takes to make sure their investment doesn’t go the same way.
The Panthers ranked fifth last year in quarterback pressures created with 117 hurries, per Sporting Charts. By comparison, the Redskins had just 95 and ranked 18th. Carolina also finished sixth in total sacks, and the Redskins were tied for 14th. Every cornerback in the NFL benefits from pressure on the quarterback as the frenzy causes confusion and lessons the chance for a loss in coverage to be exposed.
Since Washington lacks a special linebacker corps and is close to league-average with their pass-rush, Norman must continue to refine his game. He can’t bank on the reputation he helped build through the media to save him, as the microscope will be on him constantly.
There were too many instances where Norman was caught with slow feet or was overpowered, and he benefitted from a bad throw or easy drop.
His passer-rating-allowed statistic was deceiving as I charted four dropped receptions of 20 or more yards, with two being easy touchdowns if caught. That doesn’t happen that often to elite cornerbacks at this level. What’s expected is for Norman to be physical with receivers and force tough receptions, even if the contact is borderline illegal.
Despite the concerns that Norman may struggle, it’s easy to see why Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan said going after Norman was a must. Per ESPN’s Jim Corbett, McCloughan noted that a roster can “never have enough corners," and Norman was the first player to be named an All-Pro and then become a free-agent.
He certainly has positives. He’s a dangerous player when he gets his hands on the ball and his 6’0”, 195-pound frame is ideal for the Redskins defense. His personality is perfect for the role of No. 1 cornerback, and he’s clearly worked hard to get to this point in his career. There’s no reason to think he’s maxed out his talent besides his age.
If the Redskins can be more consistent rushing the passer and add more athleticism at linebacker in the next year, then their surrounding pieces can help replicate his situation in Carolina.
Expecting him to rise and suddenly become an elite coverage corner would be asking too much because he’s not that type of player, despite his salary suggesting so. He can still be successful and worth the premium Washington paid with the right support around him, though.
If Norman replicates his 2015 season in each of the next three years, then the Redskins made the right decision. Mirroring his 2015 season with a lesser cast will mean he continued his development. His performance will look better if the defense upgrades several spots in the secondary and linebacker corps. But if he stays stagnant or takes a step back, then his legacy will be damaged.
Washington will be a challenge for Norman. Whether he goes down as another major free-agent bust under owner Dan Snyder or transcends his situation, it won’t take long to decide as his contract has an easy out just two years in.
All stats used are from sports-reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.