Week Under Review: Why Josh Norman's deal makes sense
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Welcome to "Week Under Review," where we typically discuss hot storylines, introduce new ideas, and try to have a little fun. This week’s format will be a slight change of pace. Why? Because it’s Passover—the Jewish holiday to celebrate the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian capture—and during Passover we focus on asking (and answering) questions. Here are the four on my mind. Let’s begin in our nation’s capital...
Is Josh Norman the real deal, or will he be just another misguided, overpriced signing for Washington under Dan Snyder?
Norman has come a long way since he was benched during his 2012 rookie season after reportedly playing “too soft.” Fast forward to last year, and I was among those advocating for Norman to get real consideration as Defensive Player of the Year, after a monster season in which he had a team-high 18 passes defended to go along with six takeaways (four interceptions and two forced fumbles). He was labeled a “shutdown corner,” though some analysts question the use of that term for a cornerback working in a predominantly zone scheme (Norman played zone defense 81.6% of last season according to Pro Football Focus).
Norman had no interceptions after Week 4, but it’s not hard to imagine that total being higher had he played press man coverage. Some argue that one year isn’t a large enough sample size to anoint Norman as one the league’s top shutdown corners. That’s ridiculous. The NFL, more than any entity that comes to mind, is a year-to-year, if not week-to-week business. Last year at this time, noted shutdown corner Darrelle Revis was the unequivocal ruler of the NFL’s cornerback kingdom. But after a series of pedestrian performances—including getting smoked by Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins in the Jets pivotal Week 17 game against Buffalo—I’m taking Norman as my featured corner, long track record or not.
Norman is a game changer because his ability to react to routes single-handedly forces teams to alter their schemes. One somewhat telling stat: only four opposing receivers eclipsed 100 yards last year against the Panthers, which is pretty amazing because we’re in a pass-happy era and because teams were often playing deep in the hole in the second half of games against Carolina.
I love how things unfolded with Norman’s exit. As mentioned, the NFL is a year-to-year business with little guarantees for players, thus Norman was right not to budge from maximizing his market value during his (possibly) one opportunity to secure guaranteed money and a long-term deal. He believed there was market demand in his price range, $16 million a year, and he was right. And Panthers G.M. Dave Gettleman was right not to pay Norman, since he truly believed Norman was overvaluing himself, and apparently wasn’t a fan of his attitude. There was conviction and honesty on both sides, which is much better than veiled clichés. Everyone is circling Weeks 3 and 17 on Washington’s schedule when Norman will go toe-to-toe with noted foe Odell Beckham Jr. Those games should be entertaining and oozing with hype, but I’m far more excited for Week 15 when Washington hosts Carolina on Monday Night Football.
Norman is worth the risk for Washington. The Redskins had the cap space, and they needed an infusion of talent to a secondary that allowed 258 passing yards a season. Washington’s secondary displayed a lot of versatility last year—which was useful given its rash of injuries and suspensions—but no individual was that game changer who struck fear into opponents.
Norman has evolved as a physical presence on a field, and there’s still a rawness to his play that seemingly makes him moldable to a variety of schemes, including man. In many ways, he’s the defensive version of the last big name Gettleman let walk—Steve Smith. Like Smith, Norman is not technically proficient in every realm and is a known hothead, but if that fire can be honed for good, watch out NFC East.
Side note: I absolutely love that Josh Norman brought a special guest with him to sign the new contract.
Jared Goff or Carson Wentz – who will be the better NFL quarterback?
I have no idea, but neither does anyone else. Playing quarterback in the NFL is like being President of the United States—there is virtually nothing that can prepare you for the uniqueness of the job and, thus, no way to predict future success. For every “sure thing” like Andrew Luck, there’s an equal bust like RGIII and even more sleepers like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Joe Theismann who nobody thought would achieve greatness.
The factors determining an NFL quarterback’s success run so much deeper than sheer talent and ball grip. Will he play in the right scheme for his skill set? Does he have surrounding offensive weapons? What’s the status of his offensive line? Does his new team have an existing quarterback who will serve as mentor? Will his new team’s head coach and owner coddle him or give him tough love? Will he be able to handle the speed of the NFL? Will he be able to handle the pressure of playing the most important position in the NFL? Will he get caught up in his new found fame?
Mark me down for Wentz because I’m more intrigued by his potential, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Goff, Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, Connor Cook, or someone like Vernon Adams develops into the preeminent quarterback of this class. That’s how things go in the unpredictable NFL. After all, who could have predicted that John Quincy Adams, with his strong pedigree and extra large hands, would turn into such a disappointing President? On the other hand FDR’s measurables were underwhelming to say the least, but those intangibles sure did lead him to greatness.
Is Matthew Stafford, selected no. 1 overall in 2009, a bust?
Despite no official qualifications, the “draft bust” label is handed out with confidence and venom, particularly when it comes to quarterbacks. Yes, JaMarcus Russell, the Raiders’ no. 1 overall in 2007, is a bonafide bust, compiling a 9-18 record in three troubled seasons with Oakland. Same with Tim Couch, Cleveland’s pick for the 1999 draft’s top spot, who was so poor in five seasons that he managed to carve out a special category in the history of Browns QB futility. And who can forget, the founder father of QB busts, Ryan Leaf? But when thinking beyond these obvious choices to other potential quarterbacks bust, things get a little more nuanced.
Take Alex Smith, 2005’s no. 1 overall. Smith was an absolute disaster for his first six seasons in San Francisco, highlighted by losing his starting to JT O’Sullivan during training camp in 2008. At that point, Smith was a fixture in every draft bust listicle. But then Jim Harbaugh came to the rescue in 2011, getting maximum potential out of Smith by lowering his degree of difficulty, which Andy Reid has continued to foster the past three seasons in Kansas City. Smith is the type of game-manager quarterback who, paired with the right defense, can be efficiently effective and not muck up a playoff run—like he was with the 49ers in 2011, or like Peyton Manning this postseason. Still, when you consider Smith’s initial failure and the alternative QB pick the 49ers could have had (Aaron Rodgers), I think he qualifies as a bust for San Francisco. Though he’s certainly not a bust in the eyes of Chiefs fans.
Quarterbacks should be more susceptible to the bust label in the modern NFL era given their supreme importance to teams. The Chiefs spent their no. 1 overall in 2013 on left tackle Eric Fisher. Fisher has been a disappointment and is still work in progress but, given that the Chiefs have been playoff bound two of the last three seasons, he hasn’t exactly driven the franchise into the ground.
That leads me to Matthew Stafford, who is somehow only 28 years old. Stafford is far from a bust in the fantasy world, having topped 4,000 passing yards each of the past five seasons. But his interception rate is perennially high, and he’s streaky.
Unfortunately for Lions fans, Stafford hasn’t been streaky at the right time. Detroit’s two wildcard berths in the Stafford Era ended in losses, both aided by Stafford’s three interceptions. At some point Stafford, who can put up a monster game at any point, became a slightly better version of Jay Cutler—a strong arm who makes too many mistakes for this point in his career. On the surface, it’s silly to label Stafford a bust. But it’s important to consider that Stafford was the second to last no. 1 overall before the rookie salary cap. Think about his initial six-year, $72 million deal with $41 million guaranteed and how it strapped the Lions cap-wise. With that hefty price combined with the tease of unrealized potential, Detroit may have been better off with either a clear game manager or simply an immediate bust. That way, the Lions could have cut their losses early and made another attempt at a true generational quarterback. (And yes, I get this these are the Lions we’re talking about and they would have failed, but that’s not the point.)
Overall, it’s probably unfair to label Stafford a true bust. But he deserves some kind of asterisk.
What draft night coverage should you watch?
Ever since Mike Mayock came onto the scene, ESPN and NFL Network have engaged in a fierce rivalry to be tops when it comes to draft coverage. While both networks do a fine job and are loaded with slick packages and reporters on every scene, this year there’s a new game in town.
Pardon the self promotion, but we at SI.com are putting on our own live draft show during Round 1 and we couldn’t be more excited. Draft (and NFL) expert Chris Burke, NFL (and draft) expert Don Banks and college football (and Rocky IV) expert Andy Staples headline a casual night of conversation, in depth analysis, surprises, social engagement with you guys, and lots of fun. Best of all, we really mean live draft show as we’ll be calling out picks as they happen, one benefit of not being contractually obligated to wait until Roger Goodell announces them on stage.
So please join us at SI.com this Thursday starting around 7:30 ET, and wear your best hipster draft tee.