The Carolina Panthers made Super Bowl 50 because of Cam Newton’s MVP-level play, and because of cornerback Josh Norman’s career-year in the defensive backfield. The problem is only one of those players, Newton, is locked into a long-term deal and the other is still angling for a brand new contract before he’s an unrestricted free agent in the coming offseason.
Now, as the Panthers prepare to face the Denver Broncos on Feb. 7 for the franchise’s first championship, Norman’s glaring lack of a new contract, after he completely shut down every opponents’ No. 1 receiver and helped force a league-best 24 interceptions and 39 total takeaways, will be a continuous story line leading up to the Super Bowl.
Signing Norman, 28, to a long-term contract may prove difficult for the Panthers as they try to build off by far the best season in franchise history.
For one, Norman and his agent Dave Butz of SportStars will undoubtedly seek compensation comparable to that of Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, Seattle’s Richard Sherman, or Arizona’s Patrick Peterson. All three average the highest salaries in the NFL at the cornerback position, roughly $14 million per season, with Peterson and Sherman recently inking deals totaling more than $40 million in guaranteed money and 65 percent of the total tied up in guarantees, according to NFL.com.
Secondly, as Seattle learned with quarterback Russell Wilson, pending free agents often try to make up for lost earnings on their previous deals with their new ones. Norman made $1.59 million in 2015, combining base salary and his pro-rated signing bonus, and in his three previous seasons he totaled roughly $1.59 million in salary and bonuses.
The miniscule amount made sense from the onset, given Norman’s status as a little-known fifth-round draft choice out of Coastal Carolina in 2012, but over the last two seasons and especially this year he’s outplayed his rookie deal.
Combine Norman’s perceived desire to earn as much as possible and the high-end of the cornerback market with Carolina’s long-term salary-cap situation, and things may get sticky once free agency begins in March.
The Panthers don’t have a high number of top free agents to retain in 2016, with really only Norman, fullback Mike Tolbert, and 33-year-old strong safety Roman Harper standing out as potential priorities.
But come 2017, Carolina will face some very difficult decisions as it tries to keep the nucleus of its NFC Championship squad together. Defensive end Charles Johnson, left tackle Michael Oher, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, receiver Ted Ginn Jr., free safety Kurt Coleman, and defensive tackle Kawann Short are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in 2017, while the Panthers have an option on center Ryan Kalil’s deal. It’s more than feasible to assume at least one or several of those players won’t re-sign with Carolina.
The Panthers technically have three options in regards to Norman. They can push back talk of a long-term deal and place the franchise tag on him, which will allow for negotiations to continue into July and stops other teams from offering Norman a huge deal that Carolina may be forced to match. The franchise tag could resort in a $13.5 million or $14 million one-year deal for Norman. But the Panthers run the risk of angering their best defensive back since players often want a long-term deal and all the guarantees that come with it.
The other option is to sign Norman to a long-term deal and let one or two top free agents walk in 2017. This very well could happen, but Carolina could also offer Norman a good amount of guaranteed money and backload the deal so as to keep some space open for 2017.
Lastly, they can just let him walk. By and large this isn’t a realistic scenario. Norman’s in the heart of his prime and Carolina can compensate him accordingly and get the most out of their money, unlike say what the Philadelphia Eagles got from former corner Nnamdi Asomugha after signing him to a five-year, $60 million contract in 2011.
Walking, also, may not even be an option for Norman.
"I want to be in Carolina," Norman said to ESPN at the start of training camp in August. "I've been in Carolina my whole life. Why would I want to go anywhere else? If I want to go somewhere I can just get on a plane and go. But I'd love to be here.
"We'll see what happens. The eye in the sky don't lie."