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Panthers’ CB Josh Norman’s instincts catch up with his athleticism

Only three touchdowns were scored in Carolina’s 20-9 victory last week against Jacksonville, and cornerback Josh Norman’s was the biggest. He anticipated a pass by Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, instinctively broke to the ball and returned it 30 yards for the game’s final touchdown.

As Norman reached the end zone, I had three thoughts: (1) He’s going to celebrate in the end zone; (2) he’s going to be a great post-game interview; (3) he’s going to be a free agent after the season.

The Panthers negotiated with Norman early this month and were unable to cut a deal. Then the season began. The Panthers do not negotiate during the season.

The season officially ends Feb. 7, and Norman officially becomes a free agent in March. So there undoubtedly will be a month of frenzied negotiation.

Norman is one of the best cornerbacks the Panthers have ever had. The other contenders are Eric Davis, Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas.

If Davis, Gamble and Lucas are one, two and three, Norman was Among Other Cornerbacks Receiving Votes when the 2014 season began.

But some players improve not incrementally but instantaneously. Thomas Davis, the fine linebacker whom the Panthers mistakenly played at safety as a rookie, is an example.

So is Norman. Halfway through the 2014 season his instincts caught up to his athleticism, and he became the player you’ll see Sunday against Houston. He’s athletic, he loves challenges, he’s 6 feet tall and he’s fearless. Also, he’s a great quote.

Norman, who will turn 28 this season, has the potential to be better than Davis, Gamble and Lucas.

But wait. Is he a shutdown cornerback? We love to invent titles and decide who gets to be a member. That guy is a shutdown corner. That guy isn’t. He’s a No. 1 receiver. Those guys aren’t. New England won the Super Bowl last season. Did the Patriots have a No. 1 receiver? Can you win a Super Bowl without a No. 1 receiver, or are a great coach and a great quarterback sufficient?

Shutdown cornerbacks real and imagined were at a premium after the 2014 season. The New York Jets signed the best, Darrelle Revis, to a 5-year $70 million contract.

Desperate to fix a broken defensive backfield, Philadelphia offered Seattle’s Byron Maxwell a six-year, $63 million deal ($22 million of which is guaranteed).

Maxwell, who played at Clemson, had started only 17 games in his career. But if the Eagles failed to sign him, who was left? So they overpaid. In Maxwell’s Philadelphia debut last week, Atlanta’s Julio Jones caught nine passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns.

Jones is great. But in two games against Norman last season he caught 10 passes for 107 yards, and failed to score.

This offseason the Panthers signed quarterback Cam Newton, tight end Greg Olsen and linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly to lucrative contract extensions. Every team with a franchise quarterback (another title) is going to be up against the salary cap.

Lurking in the not so distant future are potential extensions for defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who were drafted in 2013, the year after Kuechly and Norman.

A guess: the Panthers offered Norman $6.5 million to $7 million a season. Another guess: Norman wants more. Does he want Maxwell money, which is $10 million a year?

But isn’t life about more than money?

Norman is from Greenwood, S.C., a two-hour drive from Charlotte.

The Panthers this offseason allowed Norman to skydive, snowboard and surf, drive a race car and ride horses. Hey, Josh Norman, you want to run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, next July? Name a team other than Carolina that will allow you to.

Be sure and write.

Because Norman is from the Carolinas, and is allowed to do everything except fight bulls, shouldn’t he offer the Panthers a home state discount?

We’re good at suggesting (and insisting) that athletes offer their employer a discount. But what if it was you? What if you’re making $100,000 a year in Charlotte, a city you like, and a competitor in Denver, Dallas or Detroit offers 30 percent more?

What would you do? I know what you’d do.

Be sure and write.

Norman watches gladiator movies to get properly excited the night before a game, and was appalled when I told him I had never seen “300.” So I did. The movie was as good as he said it was. I owe the guy.

How much do the Panthers owe him? We’ll find out after the season.

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