Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman has been cruising around training camp with a walking stick and a raccoon tail hanging from his backpack to ward off the varmints on Wofford’s campus.
Norman is looking to protect his investments – namely himself.
“You’ve got to be careful of the wildlife out here. I don’t want to get attacked or anything happen,” Norman said before Saturday’s practice. “It’s kind of like the contract year so I don’t want to have anything go wrong.”
Norman was probably joking about the campus critters – with the offbeat Norman you can never be sure.
But he turned serious when making a case why he should be paid among the top corners in the league. Norman, entering the final year of his rookie deal, counted himself among a “handful” of elite cover corners.
Norman said corners are at a premium in a pass-happy league that is filled with big, athletic wide receivers.
“There’s only probably about 10 of us, probably less than that, in the league that can handle guys like Julio (Julio), the (Dez) Bryants, the Megatrons,” Norman said, referring to Calvin Johnson.
“You don’t have that many. I would say only a handful. So you’ve got to take that into consideration. We are a rare breed. We have to be the most athletic people on the field at that time because stopping those guys running (4.3-second 40s), whew. It’s a hard job.
“Somebody has to do it, though.”
Norman did it well last year after spending most of 2013 in the coaches’ doghouse.
Norman, 27, a fifth-round pick in 2012, began last season on the bench before replacing Melvin White in the starting lineup in Week 5.
He started 10 games, finishing with two interceptions, 11 pass breakups, 38 tackles and one forced fumble.
Some of Norman’s best work came against Jones, the Falcons’ 6-4, 220-pound Pro Bowl wideout. Norman held Jones to six catches for 59 yards in the teams’ first meeting, then limited him to four receptions and 58 yards in the Panthers’ division-clinching win in Atlanta in Week 17.
Football Outsiders, an analytics site, ranked Norman as the league’s fourth-best corner in 2014 in terms of adjusted success rate, which measures coverage skills based on a number of factors.
The same site put Norman in tie for first with Denver’s Chris Harris in adjusted yards per pass, with both players allowing 5.1 yards per pass attempt.
Panthers secondary coach Steve Wilks said Norman is a good player who's still developing.
"The one thing he does have is he has a lot of confidence, and you need that at the corner position," Wilks said. "I think as he continues to lock in and be focused in time he can prove he's one of the better corners in the league."
Norman’s confidence was on display Saturday when he met with the media.
Norman said he’d like to stay with the Panthers, but indicated he wouldn’t mind waiting until after the season to sign an extension if it meant driving his price up.
“I bet on myself my whole life,” he said. “Ever since I was a little boy I bet on myself. Until now, I’m still betting on myself. Nothing’s going to change about that.
“I know what I bring to the table. I know what I’m going to do. It’s not something I’m going to lax or let off or something like that. My confidence level is high.”
As a result of an escalator provision included in the college bargaining agreement, Norman received a 59 percent raise in the offseason. Still, his $1.54 million salary is a bargain compared to what the top corners in the league are making.
Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman and Joe Haden are averaging between $13.5 million and $14 million per year.
Norman (6-0, 195) doesn’t have the track record yet to command that type of money. The next tier of corners averages between $7 million and $10 million a year, a large group that includes Harris ($8.5 million), Antonio Cromartie and Chris Culliver (both at $8 million).
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman won’t negotiate contracts during the season. So if he wants to get a team-friendly deal done before Norman hits free agency, he has six weeks to do so.
Gettleman also has to negotiate an extension with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is under contract through 2016 after the Panthers picked up his fifth-year option.
Asked this week which player was the priority, Gettleman said: “I’m not going to go there. As far as I’m concerned they’re all important.”
Norman said his preference is to stay with Carolina.
“I’ve been here all my life – Coastal Carolina, Greenwood High, now I’m here with the Carolina Panthers, fifth-round pick,” Norman said. “Why would I want to go anywhere else?”
Norman believes Gettleman will make it happen.
“I think it’ll get done when it gets done,” Norman said. “Whenever he feels it’s appropriate, I think he’ll take the proper and necessary steps for getting it done.”
Asked if he thinks the Panthers can lock Norman up long term, Wilks said: "I hope so."