Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said before the season he was willing to bet on himself after he and the team were unable to reach a long-term contract agreement.
It proved to be a winning bet for Norman, who is ranked among the top free agents – at any position – this winter.
The Panthers have not yet renewed their negotiations with Norman, according to a league source with knowledge of the situation. But given how far apart the two sides were in August, Norman’s contract talks could result in a stalemate that prompts the Panthers to use the franchise tag on him.
Tuesday was the first day NFL club could apply the tag, which binds players to their team for one year at a high, guaranteed salary. The tag cost for corners this year is an estimated $13.7 million, based on a $153 million salary cap (which hasn’t been officially set, yet).
That’s a lot of money to tie up in one defensive back, especially considering how Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman built the secondary his first three seasons in Charlotte.
Gettleman stocked the secondary with mid-round draft choices (Bené Benwikere, Tre Boston) and mid-tier free agents (Antoine Cason, Roman Harper, Kurt Coleman). He chose not to re-sign corner Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell, the last two starting defensive backs to hit free agency.
But Norman is in a different category.
The former fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina emerged as one of the top corners in the league this season, and wants to be paid as such.
A $7.5 million gamble
The Panthers offered Norman a five-year deal worth an average of $7.5 million a year in August, which Norman and his agent rejected. Norman said during training camp he’d be happy to bet on himself because he’d done so his entire life, as a lightly recruited player out of Greenwood, S.C., and again entering the draft in 2012 as a product of an FCS school.
The gamble paid off when Norman intercepted four passes in the first four games, returning two for touchdowns, and earned the first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections of his four-year career. Norman led all corners with a 54.0 passer rating allowed when quarterbacks targeted him during the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus.
PFF ranked Norman as the league’s third-best free agent this winter, behind Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
For Norman to reach the $14-million-a-year level of corners Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman, the Panthers would almost have to double their offer from August.
That seems unlikely to happen.
The Panthers re-signed middle linebacker Luke Kuechly in September to a five-year extension worth $62 million, or an average of $12.4 million per year. Kuechly has been to three Pro Bowls in four seasons and is one of only two players in NFL history (Lawrence Taylor is the other) to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in consecutive seasons.
While it’s an apples-versus-oranges comparison because the two play different positions, it’s still tough to imagine the Panthers paying Norman more than Kuechly.
A product of scheme?
Norman turned 28 in December and will be 33 at the end of a five-year deal. Critics – and some receivers – claim Norman is not a true shutdown corner because he excelled in the Panthers’ Cover-3 zone scheme.
But longtime Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber said believes that is faulty logic.
“I hate that argument was because people said that about me, ‘All he can play is Cover-2.’ Well, we played almost all Cover-2,” said Barber, a Fox Sports analyst who played 16 seasons. “You can’t define guys based on scheme. To me, you look at skill set and the value he brings to the team.”
Barber likes Norman’s long frame, his confidence, production and a harder-to-define quality, which Barber described as “generally a nuisance to receivers.”
That said, Barber thinks Norman has to string a couple of All-Pro-caliber seasons together before he’s paid like Revis, Sherman, et al.
Gettleman typically does not engage in contract talks until the NFL scouting combine, which begins next week in Indianapolis. But given the interest Norman is expected to draw in free agency, that process could begin earlier in his case.
The Panthers could start the negotiations around $10 million a year and see where things go from there.
Gettleman showed with defensive end Greg Hardy he’s not afraid to use the tag, a decision that blew up on the Panthers when Hardy was arrested on domestic violence charges shortly after the team tagged him. Even so, Gettleman reiterated last week he will use any means necessary in building a roster, including the tag.
The deadline for teams to apply the tag is March 7. The clock’s ticking.