The Carolina Panthers applied the non-exclusive franchise tag to All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman on Tuesday, hours before the 4 p.m. deadline.
The non-exclusive tag means Norman is free to negotiate a deal with other teams. If he finds a taker, the Panthers have the right to match the deal or allow Norman to leave in exchange for two first-round picks. Given the steep cost of compensation, such a scenario is considered unlikely.
If Norman, 28, plays the 2016 season under the franchise tender, he will be guaranteed $13.95 million. Norman and the Panthers can continue negotiating on a long-term contract until July 15, although there have been few signs the two sides are anywhere close to a deal.
The Panthers offered Norman a five-year contract before the season started worth about $7.5 million a year. Norman turned it down, saying he was happy to bet on himself because he’d done it all his life.
Norman, who earned his first Pro Bowl honor last season, wants to become one of the league’s highest-paid corners with a contract worth more than $14 million per year.
But considering team officials first met with Norman’s representative last week in Indianapolis, the chances of getting a deal done before Tuesday’s deadline was remote.
In his three years with the Panthers, general manager Dave Gettleman has not shown a propensity to invest heavily in defensive backs. He let cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell walk in free agency, although Norman played at a much higher level last season than those starters from the 2013 team.
After Norman intercepted four passes in the first four games, returning two for touchdowns, several teams stopped throwing to his side of the field. He didn’t add to his interceptions total over the final 12 regular-season games, but he finished with an NFL-best 54.0 passer rating against, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Josh has worked hard to develop himself into a very good player,” Gettleman said in a release. “We appreciate the role he plays for us in our defense and we look forward to having him back for the 2016 season.”
Critics – including Houston Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins – say Norman is not a true lockdown corner because he’s not often lined up in man-to-man coverage. But with his length (6-foot, 195 pounds), willingness to tackle in run support and ability to play man and zone, Norman is a good fit in the Panthers’ scheme.
Norman helped the Panthers lead the league in interceptions (24), takeaways (39), turnover differential (plus-20) and points off turnovers (148) last season. He was the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September and finished the regular season with 16 pass breakups, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera says he’s excited Norman will be back in the fold.
“He played very well for us this year and was a big part of the success we enjoyed as a team,” Rivera said.
At the NFL Scouting Combine last week Rivera expressed no concern over Norman’s relatively advanced age for someone hitting free agency for the first time. Norman was 24 when the Panthers drafted him in the fifth round in 2012 out of Coastal Carolina.
“Remember, he didn’t play an awful lot earlier in his career. And then now he’s starting to play a lot,” Rivera said. “I’m not concerned that he’s going to be a worn-down body or anything like that.”
Norman becomes the sixth player in Carolina history to receive the tag, joining punter Todd Sauerbrun (2003), left tackle Jordan Gross (2008), defensive end Julius Peppers (2009), center Ryan Kalil (2011) and defensive end Greg Hardy (2014).
The Panthers paid Hardy $13.1 million for what turned out to be one game after he was arrested on misdemeanor domestic violence charges nine days after signing his franchise tender. Those charges were eventually dismissed.