Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera laughed and broke into a smile Monday when the week’s first Josh Norman question was asked.
Rivera will field a couple of dozen more before the Monday Night Football matchup Dec. 19 in Washington.
It’s easier for Rivera to smile about the subject of losing his Pro Bowl cornerback now, because two of the corners the Panthers drafted the week they lost Norman – starters James Bradberry and Daryl Worley – have begun playing at the level the team envisioned.
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That is not to say the Panthers (5-8) are a better team or defense without Norman. That’s not the case.
Given the Panthers’ returning nucleus from last season’s Super Bowl team, the right move for general manager Dave Gettleman was to let Norman play this season under the $13.95 million franchise tag.
Gettleman said in April he rescinded the tag because of the “significant difference” in Norman’s contract demands and what the Panthers were willing to pay him. Gettleman, who said at the combine two months earlier he was comfortable letting Norman play under the tag, changed his tune in the weeks that followed and decided a “one-year deal was becoming less and less attractive.”
The Panthers had plenty of salary cap space to accommodate Norman’s tag – and still have a ton of cap room (an estimated $18.8 million). The whole point of the franchise tag is to give teams a vehicle to retain top-tier players they can’t lock up long-term.
So Gettleman’s explanation still baffles a lot of NFL insiders.
Gettleman declined an Observer request for comment Monday, keeping with his policy of not talking to the media during the season.
There is one benefit of letting one of the league’s top corners leave without getting anything in return.
If you assume Gettleman was never going to get an extension done with Norman – and there were no indications to suggest otherwise – then the Panthers at least were able to start the rebuilding process at cornerback sooner rather than later.
A tough sell?
That’s a tough argument to make with veteran leaders such as Thomas Davis, Greg Olsen and Ryan Kalil, who are running out of years to try to make it back to the Super Bowl. And it would have been a tougher sell two months ago when the Panthers’ young secondary was getting torched at a record pace.
The Panthers became the first team since the 1970 merger to allow two 450-yard passing performances in a single season. Carolina did it in 15 days when Matt Ryan (503 yards) and Drew Brees (465) picked at the Panthers’ corners like a day-after-Thanksgiving turkey carcass.
Bradberry started against the Falcons in Week 4 when Julio Jones caught 12 passes for 300 yards, the sixth-highest total in NFL history. Bradberry, the second-round pick from Samford, injured his toe during the first series covering Jones and missed the next three games, stalling his development.
Worley, a third-rounder from West Virginia, didn’t become a starter until Week 5 – after the Panthers waived Bené Benwikere in the wake of the Falcons debacle.
A third rookie corner – fifth-rounder Zack Sanchez – started in Week 6 against the Saints and was placed on injured reserve last month with a groin injury.
Bradberry, despite playing at a Football Championship Subdivision school, has shown the most polish among the rookies in terms of coverage.
Worley has been a solid tackler. He’s turned in two games with 10 tackles, including Sunday’s 28-16 victory over San Diego.
Worley also had his first career interception against the Chargers, and had a key pass breakup on Philip Rivers’ 2-point conversion pass to tight end Antonio Gates.
Past the pain?
As they prepare to see Norman try to take away their best receiver (not Kelvin Benjamin of late) on Monday, the Panthers seem to be past the most severe of the growing pains that come with playing rookie cornerbacks.
“I think those guys have produced and performed very well. I think we see it each week,” Rivera said Monday. “They’re at a point where you were hoping this was where they would be. Because as we go forward, these are guys that have the ability to be here for a while and be productive guys for us.”
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said there will be more dips in the learning curve for Bradberry and Worley. But he thinks they’re trending upward.
“I think what we’re starting to see is two young corners get a lot of experience and continue to improve,” McDermott said. “They’re getting better every game, not just in coverage but also the tackling element, which is an important part of being a good defense.”
The Panthers could have kicked the can on Norman another year and tagged him again in 2017, at a projected cost of $14.3 million. Instead, they’ll pay Bradberry and Worley a combined $1.68 million.
That gives Gettleman a lot of money to pay the big guys he covets – in this case, defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei and hopefully at least one edge rusher.
The Panthers also might need a left tackle, depending on Michael Oher’s status.
But those are issues for the offseason, which will arrive a month sooner for these Panthers.
First, there is the matter of facing Norman, whose jarring departure in April was the first sign that 2016 was going to be in stark contrast from those giddy days of last season.
“He’s a unique talent,” a smiling Rivera said Monday. “It’ll be fun – or I think it will be fun. He’s going to have a challenge. We’ll have a challenge, as well. And we’ll just see what happens.”