Decision not to pay CB Josh Norman haunting Panthers
Cornerback Josh Norman—or rather, the lack of Josh Norman—is continuing to haunt the Carolina Panthers this season.
The Panthers’ front-seven hasn’t performed to the level of a year ago, when the team was undefeated at this point in the season, but the real problem is the secondary, where rookies have done the bulk of the heavy lifting, and they have been without arguably their best CB for the past two games.
James Bradberry has been the team’s best cornerback in 2016, and he was playing in the FCS this time a year ago. For the season, Bradberry has only surrendered 160 receiving yards and a touchdown on 24 targets. He has allowed only half of those targets to be caught by opposing receivers, and QBs targeting him have a passer rating of 68.1, the best mark among Panthers CBs with more than 50 snaps of game time this season.
Bradberry, though, has been injured for the past two weeks, and the team cut loose veteran Bené Benwikere after he was torched by Julio Jones in Week 4, and later admitted to being out of peak condition. That means that against against New Orleans, the Panthers played third-round rookie Daryl Worley for 51 snaps, fifth-round rookie Zack Sanchez for 51 snaps, and Teddy Williams for 41 snaps. Williams was an undrafted rookie in 2010, and his career was 59 snaps old coming into the game—58 of which came for the team last season in snippets of playing time.
Predictably enough, that trio wasn’t able to hold up against Drew Brees and the Saints. Sanchez in particular fell victim to the double moves that plagued his college tape. He was lit up for 183 receiving yards and two touchdowns on just nine targets. Drew Brees had a perfect passer rating of 158.3 when throwing the ball his way. Carolina’s cornerbacks alone were responsible for 249 passing yards against the Saints, and they just haven’t been at the level needed for the team to be successful this season.
A year ago, the Panthers had an elite spine to their defense, with Kawann Short on the defensive line, Luke Kuechly at linebacker, and Josh Norman in the secondary all playing at an elite level and allowing the rest of the defense to play off that and raise their own game. This season, they banked on being able to replace Norman with youth and still get by, and it just hasn’t worked out that way.
Bradberry looks like a talented young corner, and were he not asked to be the team’s No. 1 CB right off the bat, the former Samford Bulldog would likely be having an excellent rookie season. That said, he is currently overmatched against the best receivers in the league, and when he isn’t in the lineup, they just don’t have anybody that can cover.
What makes it even more galling for the team is that while they were being torched on the back end by the Saints, Norman was surrendering just 12 receiving yards against the Eagles for his new team.
Maybe the decision not to pay Norman will prove to be the smart move in the long term, and maybe the rookie corners the team has pressed into starting roles will all pan out over time, but in year one, it’s a decision that is costing the Panthers games, and they now sit at 1-5—rooted to the bottom of the NFC South.