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22 Apr 2016

Film Room: Josh Norman

by Cian Fahey

Sometimes things in the NFL move quickly. Tuesday night, Josh Norman was a free agent under the franchise tag in Carolina. Wednesday night, the Panthers rescinded that franchise tag, leaving Norman free to sign anywhere he wanted. Friday night, we learned that Norman wanted to sign with Washington, who gave him a five-year, $75 million contract that includes $50 million in guarantees and makes him the highest paid cornerback in football. Does Norman have what it takes to live up to a deal like that?

Man coverage is the true test of an NFL cornerback. It's important to be able to play zone also, but NFL teams pay big money for cornerbacks who can excel in man coverage because there is greater value to them. When Darrelle Revis was in his prime, Rex Ryan asked him to follow the opposition's best receiver around the field and cover him in space. This allowed Ryan to be more aggressive with the alignment and assignments of his safeties and linebackers. It also meant that the opposing offense couldn't easily avoid Revis. Bill Belichick has made similar use of man-cover cornerbacks, putting his best man-cover corner on the opponent's second-best receiver so he could double their best receiver.

Having defensive backs who excel in man coverage assignments while playing in space allows the defense to dictate to the offense. It is much easier for offenses to avoid zone cornerbacks who play in tight margins. Furthermore, it's much easier to create the perception that you are a shutdown cornerback.

Norman primarily played zone coverage in tight margins last season. In the Carolina Panthers' scheme, he primarily played Cover-2, Cover-3, and Quarters. The strength of the Panthers defense is their front seven. The unit is specifically designed that way by general manager Dave Gettleman. Since taking over in 2013, Gettleman has drafted only one cornerback: 2014 fifth-rounder Bene Benwikere. Gettleman instead focused his picks on pieces for his front seven while signing low-cost free agents to build his secondary.

Gettleman understood that he could rely on the strength of his front seven to alleviate the pressure on his back four. He wouldn't blitz, so he could keep seven defenders in coverage as often as possible. Instead of fighting at the top of the draft for talented defensive backs who could play in space -- athletes with precise feet, consistent discipline and impressive ball skills -- Gettleman focused on getting players who could play the ball in the air while fitting the defense's zone-heavy scheme. Individual mistakes would be less of an issue in this defense, because everyone would be playing with help nearby and they wouldn't be exposed unless specific route combinations had been called.

This is the context surrounding the rise of Norman.

Norman was celebrated as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL as the Panthers ascended to the top of the NFC. The talented cornerback had struggled with his consistency throughout his career, even being benched by the current coaching staff for his poor play in the past. He timed his rise to prominence perfectly, as 2015 was a contract year for him. Nobody expected Norman to hit the free agent market, and he didn't initially because the Panthers put the franchise tag on him. That leads us up to this week. Gettleman made the astonishing decision to withdraw Norman's tender so he could hit the free agent market. While he clearly valued the individual talent, Gettleman's philosophy shone through in this move. He wasn't going to overpay a player who played an ancillary role in his ideal defense.

While his talent will obviously attract a lot of teams, those teams should be cautious in throwing money Norman's way. Firstly, he's not young. Norman will turn 29 this year despite only being in the league for four years. Secondly, pursuing teams need to separate Norman's individual play from the support he received in Carolina. Just last year we saw the Philadelphia Eagles completely misevaluate a player in a similar situation. The Eagles signed Byron Maxwell from a zone-heavy team that didn't blitz much and had exceptional talent in the front seven. When he was asked to play more man coverage in more space, Maxwell's ball skills were no longer enough to carry him. he was exposed so much so that the Eagles essentially gave him away 12 months later.

Comparing Norman to Maxwell now sounds ludicrous, but comparing the two last year wouldn't have been. Maxwell would likely have been the more popular name.

To separate Norman from his scheme, extensive analysis is required. I used the Pre-Snap Reads Analysis Method to go through all 19 games that he played last year. The method is explained in greater detail here, but it essentially looks at every single play a cornerback plays and tracks whether he successfully carried out his assignment or not. It only includes plays where the cornerback and receiver were in fair one-on-one situations. Despite playing 19 games last year, Norman only had 253 qualifying plays. Darrelle Revis had 375 when he played 19 games in 2014. Revis and Richard Sherman have consistently been the best performers in these analyses over the years. Their success rates have hovered around 81 percent for the most part. Any rate over 80 percent is very impressive, while quality starters primarily stay above 75 percent.

Norman finished with a 69.96 percent success rate in 2015. As a one-on-one defender, Norman is below average. He shouldn't be asked to play man coverage in space on a regular basis. When he does play man coverage, he is typically at his best bailing away from the line of scrimmage at the snap. This is because he can't jam receivers in press at the line of scrimmage.

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This play comes from Week 1. Norman struggled that day, losing five times on 13 qualifying snaps. He primarily covered Allen Robinson and was in press six times. Norman tried to be physical with Robinson but it didn't work. In the above GIF, Norman attempts to disrupt the timing of the receiver by jamming him with one hard punch at the line of scrimmage. He uses the right hand and lands it on Robinson's chest but makes no impact on the big receiver. Norman had to make an impact on Robinson because he had stopped his feet and dropped his heels into the ground. Because he didn't make an impact, Robinson was immediately free to run down the sideline and Norman was trying to recover from the beginning of the play.

He would have given up a big play, but Blake Bortles checked down to his first read immediately.

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Allen Hurns beat him later in the same game. Norman again showed off heavy feet and light hands but went one step further this time as he looked to the quarterback after Hurns had passed him. He lost awareness of where the receiver was, grabbing him before bumping into him. Norman likely would have been flagged had Hurns not caught the ball a moment later.

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A week later, DeAndre Hopkins made a fool out of Norman at the line of scrimmage on two occasions. Hopkins, Hurns, and Robinson are three of the most talented receivers in the league. Each is an incredibly difficult matchup for any cornerback. That doesn't excuse Norman though. It's not that his opponents were making spectacular plays to beat him; he was beating himself with terrible technique. You have to be quicker on your feet to be so aggressive, keeping your heels off the floor and jabbing rather than going in search of the knockout blow. This was a recurring issue throughout the whole year, but the Panthers often mitigated the need for Norman to show off control by asking him to drop into an underneath zone after aggressively jamming the receiver off the line.

This meant that Norman didn't have to worry about recovering to prevent a deep completion. That is one of the many specific benefits that Norman enjoyed playing for the Panthers last season.

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Rarely ever did Norman have to track a receiver across the field. Playing Cover-3, Cover-2, and Cover-4 meant that Norman could focus solely on his side of the field. Only five of his 253 qualifying snaps saw him cover crossing routes. He was beaten by Davante Adams, Harry Douglas, and Mike Evans, while successfully covering Evans on another and Marques Colston once.

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In the five previous GIFs, you can see how Norman avoids having to exert himself. These aren't necessarily negative plays for him, but they do matter when we primarily evaluate cornerbacks by how many yards, receptions, and touchdowns they give up, especially when we measure those stats on a per-snap basis. It's extremely difficult for Norman to make an impactful mistake on these plays. The route combination called against the specific coverages with the quality of the defense's front render his assignment irrelevant. How could the quarterback exploit any mistake he makes on these types of plays?

These are minor plays and not actual negatives on Norman's skill set. The problem is that plays like this were prominent throughout the whole year because of the scheme the Panthers employ. Those plays and the overall quality of the Panthers' defense are what allowed Norman to compile great stat lines against the top receivers in the league. At least, they were part of it.

A handful of plays can have a huge impact on the perception of a cornerback. In 2015, Norman benefited from drops as much as any of his peers. He struggled massively against the top receivers in the league. Odell Beckham's stat line and antics during the game overshadowed that he eviscerated Norman in one-on-one situations. Beckham dropped a 50-plus-yard touchdown on their very first qualifying snap of the game; he dropped an out route soon after before Eli Manning missed him down the seam when he was wide open for another potential long touchdown. For the game as a whole, Beckham beat Norman nine of 10 times. It was one of, if not the most lopsided matchup since this analysis method was created.

Norman faced Julio Jones 24 times in two games. Jones got the better of him 11 times. Typically the cornerback should expect to win more than the receiver, so this matchup was at least slightly in Jones' favor. Jones is closer to the type of receiver with whom Norman is built to match up.

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Except for DeSean Jackson, there wasn't a receiver that Norman faced in 2015 who could just run away from him. His recovery speed is exceptional, so he didn't fear running with T.Y. Hilton, Brandin Cooks, Julio Jones, or Demaryius Thomas. He was more susceptible to the receivers with refined footwork who could deceive him, but Norman is the prototype for the height-weight-speed cornerback. In the above play, Norman shows off his ability to maintain his balance and control while sprinting alongside Hilton down the seam. Even though Hilton is just ahead of him and between him and the ball, Norman is able to find the football with his length and disrupt the receiver without interfering with him.

This is a sign of his speed. It wasn't enough to just get there, he had to get there without losing control.

Speed can often be overrated at the cornerback position. You don't need great speed to be effective, but it does come in handy when you can't play perfect coverage. Norman's physical prowess stood out in 2015 on double moves. He repeatedly made impressive plays that you would hope your cornerback could make, not expect him to.

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This one captures his skill set perfectly. Norman mirrors Dez Bryant out of his release, showing off light feet while training his eyes on the receiver's eyes. He slows with Bryant as they approach the first-down marker, but his reactions are quick enough to sprint alongside him when the receiver re-accelerates. Even though Norman can't find the football from this position, his speed puts him in position to be disruptive. His size allows him to be disruptive. Bryant would have had an easy touchdown reception against most cornerbacks in this scenario.

It should be acknowledged that Norman followed some extremely talented receivers around the field for those qualifying snaps in one-on-one situations. 108 of the qualifying snaps came at right cornerback, 138 at left cornerback and seven in the slot. However, even though Norman was following those receivers around the field, he was still getting a lot of help from his teammates. Ron Rivera didn't use him the way Rex Ryan used Darrelle Revis.

The rest of Norman's skill set can't be represented in numerical form, but it's obvious on tape.

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It's impossible to know how much a player studies during the week leading up to a game or how much he understands about his opposition. We do receive hints on the field though. Like Chris Harris of the Denver Broncos, Norman is an outstanding screen defender. He appears to understand the tendencies and audibles of his opponents from studying them as he was consistently proactive in his approach to screens to his side of the field last year. In the above play against the Houston Texans, Ryan Mallett appears to change the play at the line of scrimmage, and Norman responds with his own communication to the safety on his side of the field. Norman moves with the receiver and is advancing past the line of scrimmage before Mallett begins his throwing motion.

Sniffing out screens is a valuable trait for a cornerback but not as valuable as the ability to consistently create turnovers. Two types of cornerbacks can consistently do this. One is valuable, the other is not. The valuable type pursues interceptions within the structure of his defense, making calculated risks to try and capitalize on the actions of the offense. The other type pursues interceptions through any means necessary; no responsibility to the defense is felt and assignment and situation are not relevant. An example of the first type is the now-retired Asante Samuel. An example of the second is the newly-minted Janoris Jenkins of the New York Giants. Norman is an aggressive zone cornerback who will linger too long trying to read the quarterback's eyes, but he is definitely closer to Samuel than Jenkins.

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Norman forced three fumbles and caught four interceptions last year, but got his hands to the ball consistently. He could easily have doubled his interception tally; he should have had two in the Super Bowl alone. The first of those dropped interceptions would have had a major impact on the game. It came early in the second quarter, but could have set the Panthers up deep in Denver territory. The Panthers blitzed Peyton Manning from the second level while playing a Cover-3 style zone in behind. Norman was the cornerback to the wide side of the field, the side from which the blitz came. He was left with two receivers running deep when the safety dropped beneath him.

Initially, Norman positioned himself between the two receivers, but he then reacted to Manning's eyes and broke inside as he began his release. Norman knew he was leaving Demaryius Thomas wide open outside of him, but also knew Manning wouldn't have time to hold the ball to find him. This allowed Norman to undercut the ball and attack it in the air.

Dropping the ball is obviously disappointing here, but it's less significant than his other actions on the play. This kind of intelligence and athleticism is what affords a defensive back repeated opportunities for turnovers.

It's difficult to get good value from a great zone cornerback. The cornerback obviously commands big value and a high annual salary, but it's difficult for him to match that impact on the field. The coaching staff can't anchor coverages off of him like they could a great man coverage defender, nor can they ask him to shut down a specific opponent each week. If you ignore the financial aspects, Norman is a very good cornerback, one of the best in the league. So long as he is used properly, he will significantly improve the secondary he joins.

Unfortunately, the liberal usage of the term "shutdown cornerback" and hyperbole that generally engulfs the cornerback position forces the rational of those amongst us to emphasize the flaws in a player's skill set as much as his qualities. We need to maintain some modicum of perspective, or we'll be back here in 12 months like we were with Byron Maxwell.

Here are Norman's numbers from this study against his most common opponents, by route run, and by coverage:

Josh Norman Pre-Snap Reads Analysis, 2015
Receiver Qualifying
Julio Jones 24 13 11 54.2%
Mike Evans 19 15 4 78.9%
T.Y. Hilton 15 12 3 80.0%
DeAndre Hopkins 15 10 5 66.7%
Demaryius Thomas 10 8 2 80.0%
Vincent Jackson 10 5 5 50.0%
Odell Beckham 10 1 9 10.0%
Dez Bryant 8 6 2 75.0%
Allen Robinson 6 3 3 50.0%
Allen Hurns 5 4 1 80.0%

Route Qualifying
Curl 76 53 23 69.7%
Slant 36 25 11 69.4%
In 29 18 11 62.1%
Sideline 34 32 2 94.1%
Out 28 20 8 71.4%
Seam 28 23 5 82.1%
Double Move 11 7 4 63.6%
Comeback 6 1 5 16.7%
Crossing 5 2 3 40.0%
Corner 1 0 1 0.0%

Coverage Qualifying
Press 113 90 23 79.6%
Off 140 87 53 62.1%

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 22 Apr 2016

21 comments, Last at 27 Apr 2016, 12:52pm by Never Surrender


by Parmenides :: Fri, 04/22/2016 - 9:30pm

I like this analysis mostly because it jives with my far less watching of the Panthers. In many cases it seemed like everyone was double covered. Pass off coverages were routine so saying that any individual corner back was responsible for much of what happened is insane.

The Panthers are built as a front four with a penetrating DT good DE's and someone who eats double teams, Two great coverage linebackers, a LB/Safety, and corners who can play zone responsibilities. Josh did great things with recognizing possibilities within the system. But it was within the system. I'm sure that his sack of Palmer in the playoff game was both his own recognition and a scheme to combat flood zone concepts. The offense does a flood zone to one side of the field and gets a delayed corner blitz, everyone wins. If that was just Josh then he gets all the internets and every coach should start coaching their DBs to do that.

by BroncosGuyAgain :: Fri, 04/22/2016 - 9:39pm

I haven't even read this, and I already give it thumbs up. First, I've enjoy Cian's analysis in the past, so I'm sure I'll enjoy this, too. Second, the Norman situation was weird. Franchised-to-released is unusual, and raises a lot of questions. Some are about the politics of free agency and contract negotiation. An analysis of the situation from the business perspective would be interesting. But no less interesting is the football side, which Cian and FO have (I assume) addressed in fashion both comprehensive and timely. That's the accomplishment of a great website. Good job.

Now I'm going to read the article. Please be good, Cian. I am counting on you.

by BroncosGuyAgain :: Fri, 04/22/2016 - 10:04pm

Wow, that sucked.


I need to go back through the article and gifs, but my immediate takeaway is that Norman is more brainy than physically gifted. An asset, to be sure, but an asset with limitations in deployment. I like that Norman always knows exactly where his safety help is, and uses that to parcel off what area he needs to defend. Whether that justifies the contract from the RacialSlurs, I don't know.

Thanks Cian

by Pen :: Sat, 04/23/2016 - 1:43am

Fantastic writing Cian. I think it's interesting that the Panthers and Seahawks, the two dominant teams in the NFC in recent years, have similar defenses and have had similar success. Would seem the Revis man schemes might not be as good as the zone/Front 7 approach. Carroll is quite successful using it,but of course, he has Sherman. So he can do both if necessary. Interesting, though, that Carroll brought back Browner. Browner really thrived under this system and created many turnovers that the Seahawks haven't replaced yet. Whether Norman thrives or not outside his system, the Panthers may miss his production in theirs one day.

by Never Surrender :: Sat, 04/23/2016 - 9:05am

As a Redskins fan, I'm already having nightmares about this signing. Was almost afraid to check whether Football Outsiders had posted anything.

Just when you think a competent GM is turning the team around . . .

by Will Allen :: Sat, 04/23/2016 - 10:45am

Yeah, if he was 25 years old, I still wouldn't like the contract all that much, but you could argue the other side a little better. He's at his physical peak right now, and is a good candidate for physical decline in the next year or two, and he isn't an extreme outlier in physical ability for NFL cbs to begin with.

I'm happy for him and his family. Less money for Daniel Snyder, and more for Josh Norman, seems like a pretty good outcome.

by SuperGrover :: Sat, 04/23/2016 - 1:35pm

In reality this is essentially a 2 year, $36.5 MM contract. Beyond that the liabilities are pretty workable. That makes the risk much less than thr reported contract especially for a CB who doesn't turn 29 until December 15th (so he just turned 28...no idea why everyone keeps saying his is 29). This is an overpay but I am pretty certain Scott Mac thinks this will help solve the def sec issues forthe next couple seasons and allow for focus on LB and interior line during the draft. Given the contract structure and cap health this shouldn't have too much of a neg impact in 2018 or beyond.

Keep in mind that Washington won the division last year and has a very clean cap situation. At some point you have to spend on someone. Will there be better values than Norman next year? Maybe, but it's also possible that there will not.

by SuperGrover :: Sat, 04/23/2016 - 1:43pm

Here are the details of the contract. It looks a lot better once you pull back the covers. 0 guaranteed moneyafter year 3 and a potential exit in year 3 for $9MM in dead cap.


by dank067 :: Sat, 04/23/2016 - 9:00pm

They way the contract is written right now their long-term cap should be ok, but they have to hope that $20 million hit next year (2017) doesn't come back to bite them. Especially since they still need to get a starting QB under contract. Obviously it's early, anything can happen, but the temptation to re-work Norman's deal will be there...

by SuperGrover :: Sat, 04/23/2016 - 9:14pm

Yeah next year is the risk should he get hurt (chances of him sucking bad enough you'd want to release him for performance are very slim). However, I don't think Cousins' contract will be hampered as his cap hit will most likely be smallish in year 1.

My biggest fears are inability to find players on interior DL, managing their receiving corps (Jackson and especially Garcon won't be there too much longer and Reed wants a TON of money), and solving the LB crisis. If Norman fails to be an elite CB (plays average lets say) the contract will be a major hindrance but not a franchise killer. They have too much space and have structured it in a way to minimize risk in order for it to decimate the club.

I think this pickup is a B to B-. Again you have to spend money on someone and I think Norman probably provides Washington as much or more value than other FAs, especially given their roster composition.

by Noah Arkadia :: Sun, 04/24/2016 - 12:12am

Great write up and wise decision by the Panthers. They get a compensatory 3rd rounder, too. Odd that the Dolphins were interested, considering they're supposed to play press this year. Probably Tannebaum got all excited before the scouting dept. gave him a call to say, dude, no.

As to the Redskins, it's the usual tale of free agency, with the top players all being overpaid with a chance to be misused as well. Good luck to them, but it seems like the typical signing that could possibly work out if it had been well thought out, but rarely does.

by Never Surrender :: Mon, 04/25/2016 - 2:00pm

This actually isn't "the usual" tale for the Redskins with respect to free agency — it's a departure from what the team has done for years now. The last big free agent splash was Albert Haynesworth, who was signed a year before Mike Shanahan was named head coach.

(For more context, consider that when the Redskins splurged on Haynesworth, Peyton Manning still had two full seasons of football ahead of him plus another year on the bench — in Indianapolis, that is.)

I suppose one could make the case that RGIII fits in the same category of offseason moves as Haynesworth and the well rehearsed roll of players from, like, 2005 and before. If so, fine: even then, the Redskins have made two such moves in the past decade. Still doesn't make it "the usual tale" IMHO.

by tuluse :: Mon, 04/25/2016 - 5:06pm

Two of those years Washington was unable to participate properly in free agency because of the cap penalty from their moves during the lockout aftermath.

However, I wouldn't be surprised if at this point they *had* to spend a lot of money to hit the salary floor.

by Noah Arkadia :: Tue, 04/26/2016 - 12:32pm

I didn't say the usual tale of free agency only for the Redskins, it's for everyone. The Redskins are not exempt. If you want a top tier free agent, you have to overpay.

by Never Surrender :: Wed, 04/27/2016 - 12:52pm

Ah, I gotcha.

by Jaylinsati :: Mon, 04/25/2016 - 2:37am

I also read this online. It was indeed a 5 year deal for 75 million contract for Josh after being tag as a free agent by Panthers. I agree that it was a sudden twist and a quick move. Washington has won the division last year and I guess, they are probably aware of what they are getting for they have seen Josh Norman up close already.


by Guest789 :: Mon, 04/25/2016 - 9:37am

"He was beaten by Davante Adams..."

They're doomed.

by Carlos :: Mon, 04/25/2016 - 10:08am

Fascinating analysis - exactly what brings me back to this site. Well done!

It's easy to dismiss this as more "offseason champs" stuff from Team Snyder. It certainly has many of the hallmarks of overpaying for past peak age and over-rated player who benefited massively from his playing context.

That said, I think you can make the case that this is at least a very defensible move for Washington -- the same Washington that showed it has learned a thing or two by not paying up for Alfred Morris. The case for goes something like:
- The roster remains incredibly thin
- The secondary is particularly weak, with current starters penciled in as Breeland and old man Blackmon, with no one very promising behind them
- The team has ample cap space
- This deal is really a 2-3 year deal, tops -- as is typical, years 4-5 are merely to help make the headlines for the player and agent
- Teams in Washington's situation need to take higher beta bets to have a chance to break out, and those moves should be made wherever the team has degrees of freedom (this one is at the intersection of a particularly weak, high leverage roster spot and the cap room that makes this affordable)

My guess/prediction is that this move helps push the team in the right direction of being more competitive, along with the primary strategy of building through the draft.

Of course, in Washington, Norman will face ODB twice a year, so, yuck.

by Raiderjoe :: Mon, 04/25/2016 - 12:54pm

ODB? AS in O. Dell Beckham?

guy's initials/mickname is OBJ .. local media uses it.

ODB is dumb internet thign. pelase keep that at espn and pro fotoball talk message biards

by Ranccor :: Mon, 04/25/2016 - 8:52pm

Yeah. ODB = Ol' Dirty Bastard.

by dwest718 :: Mon, 04/25/2016 - 5:01pm

I read a good bit of this article thinking, "That sounds like Richard Sherman." And then I went back and skimmed the film room write up on Sherman and saw some similar things. To me, they're very similar players but Sherman has a couple inches height advantage and higher football IQ, while Norman is slightly more athletic. Am I crazy?

EDIT: I guess the article says Sherman has a better success rate in man coverage, but I was more focused on the press aspect I guess.