Daily Focus: Can Carolina replace Josh Norman?

Examining the Panthers' secondary heading into 2016, plus why Dallas should sign Brandon Boykin and Martellus Bennett's impact in New England.

| 6 months ago
(Chris Keane/AP Images for Panini)

(Chris Keane/AP Images for Panini)

Daily Focus: Can Carolina replace Josh Norman?


Editor’s note: Every weekday in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.

How Panthers will replace Josh Norman: The Carolina Panthers shocked the league when they allowed superstar cornerback Josh Norman to become an unrestricted free agent, after initially designating him with the team’s franchise tag. This left Carolina with a massive hole at one of the most important positions in football.

Norman’s 2015 was spectacular outside of a matchup against the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. that looked more like a UFC fight than a football game (and also resulted in Norman getting beat for some big plays), as he finished as one the NFL’s top-graded corners. He made news Tuesday with his assertion that his success wasn’t a product of the Panthers’ pass rush, and that he’ll be a difference-maker for his new team, the Washington Redskins.

With Norman gone, Carolina’s top returning cornerbacks are Robert McClain, rookie James Bradberry, and Bene Benwikere – not a group that inspires a lot of confidence and could arguably be the worst trio in the NFL.

With just five picks in the NFL draft, the Panthers attacked the position with three of those – Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez.  Bradberry comes from small school Samson, but tested very well at the combine. He graded out average during Senior Bowl week. Worley has length and speed, but all those eye-popping GIFs you’ve seen of Browns first-round WR Corey Coleman making West Virginia CBs look foolish are against Worley. Sanchez is a boom-or-bust player with 13 interceptions and 10 pass breakups the past two years, but also seven touchdowns allowed, including five in 2015.

Look for the Panthers to struggle in the secondary in 2016. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has transformed the Panthers defense into one of the best in the NFL and helped develop a fifth-round pick in Norman into one of the best cornerbacks in the league. He’ll be able to scheme to protect his young group, but unless one of the rookies plays like PFF’s defensive rookie of the year Ronald Darby did for Buffalo in 2015, opposing quarterbacks should find success against the Panthers secondary that they couldn’t in 2015.

Why Dallas would benefit from signing Brandon Boykin: PFF has been high on Boykin throughout his NFL career, as he has graded as one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL since coming into the league in 2012. He has allowed just one touchdown since Week 13 of 2013, but for reasons unknown to us, has been on three different teams in the past year – Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Carolina.

boykin season summary

The Cowboys are reportedly considering signing him, and we think he would be a great fit in Dallas. Not a single Cowboys cornerback graded positively in 2015, and he could fit right in at the slot corner position. Orlando Scandrick’s return from ACL and MCL tears is uncertain, and Dallas is looking for improvements from Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne while hoping rookie sixth-round pick Anthony Brown can contribute. All of those scenarios are unlikely, as Carr and Claibrone haven’t shown anything the past three years and rookie cornerbacks historically struggle their first seasons.

Boykin reportedly has a hip injury that could end his career, but if his hip is healthy, Boykin would instantly upgrade this lackluster secondary. With the Cowboys seemingly “all-in” to win a Super Bowl before QB Tony Romo is no longer able to perform as one of the league’s best passers, adding Boykin is no-brainer.

What Roman Harper can bring to Saints: The New Orleans Saints signed veteran safety Roman Harper Tuesday, after his two-year stint in Carolina. Harper was a second-round draft pick of the Saints in 2006 and spent eight years of his career in New Orleans. In 2013, his final season with the Saints, Harper missed seven weeks due to injury and it marked the only time in his career he has played fewer than 900 snaps in a season.

Harper has graded almost exactly average (-0.1 to be exact) over the course of his career. He has been a much better pass-rusher and run defender than in coverage, as he has graded positively in pass coverage just twice in his career – 2007 and 2015. While Harper has been a good pass-rushing and run-defending safety, this hasn’t been the case the past three seasons. Since turning 30, Harper has graded negatively against the run every season and has recorded just one sack after recording 19 from 2007 to 2012.

Harper still seems to have average play left in his career.  He brings a veteran presence to a secondary that busted the most coverages in the NFL in 2015. While Harper won’t be an impact player, he will provide consistent play that is desperately needed for a defense that looked completely lost in 2015.

How much of an impact can Martellus Bennett make for the Patriots this year? Bennett, who signed with the Patriots this offseason and is reportedly receiving one-on-one instruction from QB Tom Brady, has had an NFL career with two distinct arcs. From 2009 to 2012, the former Aggie was the best run-blocking TE in the NFL, and from 2012 to 2014, he developed into a pass-catching TE.

bennett season summary

Only in 2012 did he put it all together, when he graded as the fifth-best TE in the NFL. With a future Hall of Fame quarterback throwing him passes in 2016, Bennett should regain the pass-catching form he showed for three years prior to a coaching change.

The last time Brady had two healthy top-tier tight-ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for over 2,600 yards, 29 TDs, and 44 forced missed tackles. While Bennett isn’t at the same level of Hernandez’s pass-catching ability, he has forced 56 missed tackles the past three years. He and Gronk could form a devastating combination.

While Bennett’s impact will be felt in the passing game, expect his superior run-blocking talent to bounce back in 2016. It will be needed in the first four weeks of the season when Brady is suspended. Head coach Bill Belichick gets the most out of his players, and that will happen with Bennett and his run blocking. When Brady returns, expect to see Bennett at the end of beauties like this.

tom brady game winner

| Analyst

John is an analyst for Pro Football Focus and former safety for the University of Kansas Jayhawks (2004–2006).

  • crosseyedlemon

    As a Bear fan I’m hoping Martellus does well in that offense. Replacing a guy doing a life sentence shouldn’t be that hard….unless he executes a prison break.

  • Nick Cortez

    I think Carolina will struggle quite a bit more this year than many project. Primary reasons being that their secondary will be worse and their oline still isn’t great. The division features Brees and Julio Jones with Matt Ryan throwing to him. It will be VERY difficult to win both of those games against both of those teams like they did in 2015. They may still win the division, but it won’t be a runaway like last year. I’d expect the Saints and Falcons to both challenge Carolina early and 1 of them to be within a game of Carolina in the final 2 weeks of the season.

    • Panthers/Truth

      I also question the Panthers pass rush. Charles Johnson is a year older, and was injured for much of the regular season last year, so his production could slip from his pre 2015 averages. Kony Ealy had a great Super Bowl, but he’s a spurt of good games each season, so the question is, can Ealy put togeather a good full season, and not just a good 1/4 season? Top backup Mario Addison is a good pass rusher, but lacks the size (6’2 5/8″, 260) to be a good run defender, making him a situational pass rusher. Beyond those 3 DE’s it’s just a grab bag of UDFA’s (except for Lions 2014 4th round pick Larry Webster), who lack size (Wes Horton is the only one over 265 pounds), and speed (except for Larry Webster’s 4.58-40, 1.57-10).

      • Nick Cortez

        Agreed. Fortunately for the Panthers, though, their interior lineman have been very good-excellent. The Saints are now trying to emulate that with the signing of Fairly and drafting of Rankins.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Last season was a cakewalk for the Panthers partly because they posted a league best +20 turnover ratio. Norman provided 6 takeaways so it’s unlikely they will come close to matching that number this season.

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