Josh Norman, a 2015 All-Pro with 14 career interceptions, has been a top cornerback in the league before. But the 32-year-old’s play has been declining, especially over the past two seasons. He now finds himself on the open market. Washington released Norman following a down 2019 that saw him get benched.
Norman was due a sizable amount of money in 2020, which is another reason why his release was unsurprising. He was the second-highest paid cornerback in the NFL, and Norman simply isn’t at that level anymore. Norman was a liability in coverage on a 3-13 Washington team severely lacking in talent.
Despite that, Norman is confident he’s still an elite player. Washington’s overall dysfunction surely played a role in his struggles, but when it comes to his one-on-one matchups with receivers, has he really been playing that poorly?
The short answer: yes.
The longer answer involves jumping into the film for a sampling of times when he was beat last season to see if we can find a reason — other than “he’s just getting older” — to explain what has happened to Norman.
The film hasn’t been kind to Norman
Norman was responsible for just 13 touchdowns targeting him over his first six years in the league. But over the past two seasons, he allowed 15 touchdowns in coverage, per Pro Football Reference.
Looking at some of the touchdowns he gave up in that time reveals a trend: Norman has slowed down. Whether in his top-end speed or his ability to change direction on the spot, Norman isn’t as agile as he used to be.
Norman is at the top of the play above, which occurred against the Texans in 2018. The Texans ran a receiver past him, taking Norman inside, while DeAndre Hopkins ran a simple route to the outside. Norman recognized what was happening, but stood no chance of getting back in time to break up the pass.
That’s the kind of play Norman feasted on earlier in his career. He became a great cornerback because he played quarterbacks so well. Here, he was the one who got played.
Not all of his failures resulted in short touchdowns. In fact, Norman allowed more deep touchdowns than ever before in the last two seasons. In another example from 2018, he got beat for a 64-yarder against the Packers:
Norman has the bottom of the screen here. It’s a zone alignment, but it’s also clear Norman had no reason to stick to the outside given the offensive alignment. He should have followed Geronimo Allison closely, and instead he gave him an extra step or two, which resulted in a huge gap due to Allison’s speed — and to Norman’s lack of speed. He didn’t even try to pursue Allison on the play.
Let’s jump to this past season, and Washington’s first game against the Eagles.
Norman is at the top of the play, and you can see he gave DeSean Jackson well over 10 yards of space. Norman wasn’t as fast as Jackson even at his best, but Jackson still ran right past him on this 51-yard touchdown.
It wasn’t the only 51-yard touchdown that Norman surrendered. The same thing happened the very next week against the Cowboys.
Norman is at the top of the screen again, this time covering Devin Smith. It was a plain foot race and to Norman’s credit, he kept up for a time, and with little cushion given at the snap. Still, Smith pretty easily beat him by the end of the play, when Norman was stumbling.
And that’s something I saw more than anything: Norman simply running out of gas. That’s as sure a sign as any that age is catching up to him. He’s putting in the effort — he still jumps for the ball, for example — but those plays often result in him on the ground while the player he covered celebrates a touchdown.
Here’s another example from last season, this one against the Bears.
He followed Gabriel through his route and even had a step on him as they turned the corner, but then ran out of gas at the end again. Gabriel got the step back, then another, and Norman was left a couple yards back. It ended with a 36-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell Trubisky.
Norman has clearly lost a step, so what’s next?
Watching film, it appeared like quarterbacks often looked to Norman’s side last, even after his decline started. However, they won’t have that same respect now that they probably realize he’s the defensive back to pick on.
Which leaves us with the question: should any team sign Norman this offseason?
Going by the film, I’m not sure what role Norman could effectively fill while still being considered a starter. His speed and agility have dropped enough that I wouldn’t trust him in the slot — he belongs outside, at the very least. But is he a starting cornerback? I don’t think so.
If you consider teams like the Eagles that need a starter (or two) at the position, I don’t think Norman is the right guy. I’m sure he’d be valuable to have around, though, for some team. He’s an intelligent veteran and could be useful as a rotational player.
The best destination for Norman is one where he can be the third corner on the field, but still play outside. There’s too much film of receivers making a highlight-reel play while Norman is soundly beat to give him a more prominent role at this point in his career.