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In letting Norman go, Panthers lose a CB who'll be very hard to replace

Panthers GM Dave Gettleman has never hesitated to cut ties with valuable players if he doesn't see a long-term future with them. He did just that with Josh Norman on Wednesday, making the star cornerback an unexpected free agent. 

We all thought the Eagles moving up to grab the second overall pick from the Browns would be the biggest NFL news today, but it's not every day that a team decides to let perhaps the best cornerback in football hit the open market after already placing the franchise tag on him. But that's exactly what the Panthers have done with Josh Norman. On Wednesday afternoon, general manager Dave Gettleman announced in a statement that Norman was now free to pursue his future with any other team.

“After a number of conversations with Josh’s agent, we realized that a long-term deal was not attainable,” Gettleman said. “We thank Josh for all his contributions and truly wish him well.”

It's a blockbuster move, because Norman has become one of a handful of the best at his position in the game over the last couple of seasons.

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“If you feel you're better than me, line up and prove it,” he told me last October, when I watched his game tape with him. “I promise you, I will show you different. That's how I feel, and if you don't feel that way, you shouldn't be playing this game. You shouldn't be on the field. If I feel that I'm better than someone else, that's not me, that's what I'm putting on the field. It speaks for itself. Anyone else can say what they want or think what they want, but I know who I am and what I bring as an individual in this league. That's what I'm trying to do, regardless of whoever thinks different.

“But I am different, in my own special way. I'm like nobody else, and I want that to show up.”

It did show up, which is why Gettleman's move is such a surprise. Norman's franchise tag would have cost the Panthers  $13.952 million against the cap, which is a relative bargain for a player who allowed a league-low 54.0 opponent passer rating last season. It's also a surprise because Norman was a stalwart down the stretch in the Panthers' Super Bowl run when other defensive backs were dealing with injuries.

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Then again, when one reviews Gettleman's history, it's very clear that he has no issue cutting bait with players he doesn't like, or players he believes don't want to stay with the team long-term. Everyone found that out in 2014, when Gettleman released all-time receiver Steve Smith in March after he was unable to find a suitable trading partner for the disgruntled receiver. Smith caught on with the Ravens, and grabbed 79 receptions for 1,065 yards and six touchdowns in 2014. He suffered injuries in 2015, but is trying to mount a comeback, and Gettleman has not yet been able to replace Smith on the roster long-term. There was an attempt to do so with first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State in 2014, and Benjamin had an excellent rookie season, but he missed the entire 2015 season with an ACL injury. Smith later said that he felt stabbed in the back by Carolina's front office, but the point remains: Gettleman will, with no fear, jettison valuable players if the long-term future isn't there. The wisdom of that will be proven over time.

Carolina's investment in Norman was long-term, to be sure. He was selected out of Coastal Carolina in the third round of the 2012 draft, endured a couple of benchings early on, and really caught fire in the 2014 season.

“I worked my tail off, man,” Norman told me last year of fixing his early struggles. “I drove myself mad just working. And the third year came around and I was in the rotation. Things happened, and I was inserted into the Ravens game, and once that happened, I never looked back.”

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Now, Norman will move on from the Panthers, and some other NFL team is about to get a highly unexpected bounty in its defensive backfield.

As far as which teams should attack this surprise the hardest, it's easy enough to say that Norman would fit anywhere. And schematically, that's true.  From a cap perspective, Norman's new suitors will have to consider that his deal will likely fall in the same range as deals paid to Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson, and Richard Sherman, currently the three highest-paid cornerbacks in the league from an average per year basis. All three of those players have contracts in the area of $14 million per year with varying guarantees. The Jaguars, 49ers, Browns, Titans and Giants have the most cap room pre-draft, per Could we see teams offloading and adjusting contracts to make room for Norman's arrival? It's very possible, because he's simply that good. The Panthers, who had a little under $18 million in cap room before the Norman decision, now can add about $14 million to that kitty. The problem is, they're also light on a player who's very hard to replace.