Carolina Panthers

If Panthers rookie DT Kendrick Norton makes roster, he's still 31 steps short of goal

Defensive tackle Kendrick Norton (74) competes in Day 1 of the Carolina Panthers' rookie mini camp on Friday, May 11, 2018.
Defensive tackle Kendrick Norton (74) competes in Day 1 of the Carolina Panthers' rookie mini camp on Friday, May 11, 2018.

Within minutes of being drafted by the Carolina Panthers, Kendrick Norton delivered a message to the 31 general managers who didn’t take him.

“My goal is to get y’all fired,” the Miami defensive tackle tweeted.

Norton, who was drafted 242nd overall by the Panthers in late April, doesn’t lack confidence. If that tweet isn’t proof enough, just look at his decision to enter the draft in the first place.

Norton cemented himself as an NFL prospect as a sophomore, when he put up 39 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2016. He was a third-team All-ACC selection, and entered 2017 with high expectations as a part of a talented defensive line for the Hurricanes. But his production dropped as a junior, hurting his draft stock and forcing him into a tough decision.

In January, Norton decided to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL draft. The decision went against the recommendation of the NFL College Advisory Committee, and the opinions of many analysts.

Norton didn’t mind. He was ready to go pro, ready to bet on himself.

Now, as OTAs go on, Norton has found himself in the ideal situation for a seventh-round pick trying to prove himself.

Kendrick Norton rookie mini camp
Defensive tackle Kendrick Norton (74) heads to the practice field during Day 1 of the Carolina Panthers' rookie mini camp on Friday, May 11, 2018. David T. Foster III

First, take a look at the Panthers' depth. Kawann Short hasn’t missed a game in his five-year NFL career, was a 2015 Pro Bowler and is one of the NFL’s elite pass-rushing defensive tackles. Dontari Poe, signed in the offseason, is a two-time Pro Bowler who starred with the Chiefs. Even Kyle Love, a seven-year NFL veteran, provides an opportunity for learning.

“It’s been great,” Norton said of his defensive line teammates. “They’ve been very helpful with us. They haven’t been shutting us out or anything. They’ve kind of been taking us under their wing and helping us with whatever they can.”

The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Norton is also at work with a coaching staff that has been successful in developing defensive linemen — on both the inside and outside.

Mario Addison, the Panthers’ sack leader last year, was an undrafted free agent from Troy. Short, albeit a second-round pick, didn’t truly break out until his third year. And Bryan Cox Jr., another undrafted free agent, saw time late last season as a reserve edge rusher.

The defensive line will be working less directly with its former coach Eric Washington, who was promoted to defensive coordinator this spring. But Norton is still excited to learn from Washington and new defensive line coach Brady Hoke.

“You want to know that a staff is going to coach you up and help make you the best player you can be,” he said. “That’s always encouraging.”

Norton comes from a similar 4-3 scheme at Miami, where he started 25 of his last 26 games. In 2017, the Hurricanes’ defense had 44 sacks, the most in the country. Miami also forced 31 turnovers and went viral, thanks to the golden Turnover Chain each defender got to wear after an interception or fumble recovery.

“When they came in the defensive meeting before the first game and introduced it, it was crazy,” Norton said. “We didn’t know it was going to become what it was — but we knew it was going to be great.”

Norton himself didn’t force a turnover in his last season, but he got internet famous in another way. On Oct. 7, he recorded his first sack of 2017, dragging down Florida State quarterback James Blackman by the leg. With Blackman’s leg still in his arms, Norton played it like a guitar for a few seconds before getting up off the ground.

“I didn’t even realize that I did it until after the game,” he said, laughing. “My phone was going crazy. That was a spur-of-the-moment thing.”

That viral moment— and the name recognition that came with it — had worn off by the spring, though.

Ahead of the draft, the NFL's short profile of Norton incorrectly wrote that he was the son of Ken Norton Jr., current Seahawks defensive coordinator, and the grandson of Ken Norton, the former heavyweight champ.

Numerous outlets then cited this information, including ESPN in its live draft coverage. Norton had to confirm that he wasn't related to either on a conference call to clear things up.

As a seventh-round pick, Norton is recognized by few. The simple fix to that?

Make a name for himself — and, if Norton has his way, cost a few NFL GMs their jobs in the process.

Chapel Fowler: 704-358-5612; @chapelfowler
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