Decision not to pay CB Josh Norman haunting Panthers

Through Week 6, the Panthers sit at the bottom of the NFC South, largely due to their secondary's performance.

| 4 days ago
Panthers CB Zack Sanchez

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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.

Panthers cornerback summary

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.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • JudoPrince

    The moves the Panthers made during the offseason were very telling, even at the time. They are opting for cap flexibility in the medium term, while relying on the ability to develop young talent. This is an unusual approach for teams who are on the cuffs of a Super Bowl run and It was clear from the start the roster downgrade would certainly come at a price for this season. But it may increase the window size for the Panthers to compete in the future.

    By selecting Butler (interior DL) in the first round, Carolina now has leverage when dealing with Short’s expired contract, as they can now opt to to sign Lotueli who will likely be cheaper. They drafted Bradberry who is proving to have the talent to develop into a quality starter. A starting player on rookie deal is a great investment. And don’t forget the 20 plus million in cap space going into next season by failing to plug the departures of Norman, Tillman, and Roman Harper with costly free agents. Armed with cap flexibility and future draft picks, the Panthers will have the ability to build on their weaknesses (edge pass rush, left tackle, secondary) over the offseason.

    The Panthers may have sacrificed a Super Bowl run this season for several Super Bowl runs beyond this year.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Unfortunately the precedent now established suggests that any “future” Super Bowl runs will likewise be sabotaged using the same financial explanations to explain to fans why a top performer could not be retained.

    • eYeDEF

      I’m not really buying that argument because with the kind of roster turnover teams face from year to year, this league is all about the here and now. There are no sure things with the draft. Of course it’s the key to building a good foundation for when your stars leave or become ineffective. But to rely on rookies to replace stars with no one in between is a great strategy to make the team inevitably worse.

    • PistolPat

      Problem is within two years Davis, Kalil and Olsen will be likely on the decline, they are nigh irreplaceable. Cam will need to reduce run option plays and become more of a pure passer which is something he is not (his threat as a thrower and runner will be reduced due to possibility of more injuries as well as slowing down due to age).

      Funchess is not showing he is worth the 3 picks we gave up and is not been used as what appears to be a WR 2. Byrd is gone and Ginn is already slowing down so our deep threat/high speed high receiver will also need replacing.

      And if Gettleman drafts BPA we are done as a contender for at least the next 5+ years unless it perfectly aligns with our needs. Last two drafts created more holes than it fixed due to BPA, so our future is not set for success in my honest opinion.

  • McGeorge

    “What if” the Panthers did not rescind the franchise tag or Norma and kept him, and Norman played for them this year?
    Instead of being 1-5, what would their record be?

    Realistically, would they have won one extra game? Lets say he would have added 2-3 wins (a big if). Would that mean the difference between a good season and a bad one? I don’t think so.

    I can’t really fault the Panthers for letting him go. Even if it means they go 4-12 instead of 7-9.

    • Michael Procton

      Well, they’ve lost to Denver, Tampa, and New Orleans by a combined 7 points, and given up an average of 382 passing yards and 2 TDs in doing so. I’d say he would certainly have given them a shot at one, two, or even all three wins in that trio, given how badly key mistakes made by kids Norman would have kept off the field have hurt the Panthers in each of those games.

    • crosseyedlemon

      I think the issue here goes beyond what the W/L record might be. The Panthers have made a policy statement with their handling of Norman and that is already having repercussions within the team. Players on other teams take notice of which owners reward team leaders and which don’t and that certainly figures into their thinking when they themselves have free agency offers to consider.

      • eYeDEF

        But this had nothing to do with not anteing up for a team leader and everything to do with not anteing up for a position group they devalue. Obviously Luke is the team’s defensive leader and they had no problem rewarding him with a ceiling breaking 12.3 annual contract for a middle linebacker. Maybe it puts the cornerbacks on notice that they’re working to eventually play themselves off the team, but until evidence of other position group leaders not being re-signed surfaces, there’s no reason for anyone else to be “put on notice”.

        • crosseyedlemon

          Even assuming the FO had evaluated the secondary as less important than other positions you don’t address positional needs by eliminating the top performer. The logical approach is to eliminate the weakest link. All the FO has accomplished is to put an even greater strain on the other defensive positions to cover for the bad management decision that was made.

          • eYeDEF

            That would be the logical approach if there wasn’t a salary cap. But cutting the weakest performer isn’t necessarily going provide cap flexibility like the decision not to re-sign Norman did. I’m not saying that was a great decision, when the drop off from Norman is as steep as its proven to be it appears to be a poor decision in hindsight. My point was directed at your idea that not paying team leaders would have teammates “taking note” and somehow affect their morale. I’d say no more so than any poor decision made by management of any team because all organizations make mistakes. It doesn’t prevent guys from signing and playing with perennial poor decision makers like the Browns or Bears because ultimately, those teams are stepping up and paying those players to play for them.

      • Matt Kirby

        But they couldn’t pay everybody. Norman is already nearing 30, was a late bloomer, and long term figured to be the odd man out of a younger defensive core of guys like Kuechly and Short. Cam makes super star money, you know Benjamin is gonna get a big contract to keep him, Kuechly making super star money, Short in line for a big raise, there was no way that giving Norman the big money 5 year deal he wanted was viable in the big picture. He’s the kind of guy who will fall off a cliff in a year or two and become a cap burden that a team can’t wait to dump. It’s a shame he couldn’t stay and play out his last year, but it’s not like they had the money and just didn’t feel like giving it to him. It’s that there’s a big picture a GM has to consider beyond just what his team looks like this one season. Keeping Norman long term was NEVER an option in my mind, and he wasn’t gonna accept a reasonable deal to stay.

    • Fred Dobbs

      The world will never know,yall dont have josh,the skins do

  • Erik Fountaine

    Sam brought up a great point at the end of the article mentioning the “long term”. There was no way the Panthers could give Josh Norman a big contract with already having Luke and Cam under contract for the next few years. I think their only mistake was not letting him play this season under the franchise tag designation.

  • Goawaysatan

    Last year was a mirage. This is way closer to the same 6-8 win Carolina teams we’ve seen for most of their existence and will probably stay until they fold as a franchise. They are one of the worst run teams in the league and have been for years.

    I was so bummed they tanked in 2010 and got Newton because they don’t deserve him. At least Luck was smart enough to stay in school and avoid this trash fire.

    • David Prince

      What the fuck are you talking about wrist run teams in the league for years we are the best run teams for years 30 games with at least 100 yds rushing so talk what you know buddy

    • Vesylum

      you are delusional.

      • Issac Hayes

        Delusional? The team has a career record below .500 and have been the definition of mediocre for all seasons except three. They’re a joke. Going to be acthrill when they rip off five wins in a row after they’re eliminated from the playoffs like they always do. Worthless franchise.

        • Fred Dobbs

          Just be honest,it cost to live,or succeed,in this world shouldve,payed the man,what is it gon hurt