WASHINGTON — To Josh Norman, there is no debate. The Redskins star cornerback insists he played his best football in his first season with the team.
“I put my best foot forward and I think that was the best season I’ve done had for my career wise,” Norman said after an OTAs practice on Wednesday. “But we like to take it in to that next step, bring it all in at one time and have us all as a team and be part of something great and something special because we can here in Washington. I believe we’ve got the keys and the tools to get there.”
Norman, 29, didn’t quite have the big-play impact he did in 2015 with the Carolina Panthers when he returned two interceptions for touchdowns. But he wasn’t far off. He defended 19 passes – the same as his final year with Carolina. He also forced two fumbles last season, which was one off his career high.
The plan under new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky could require Norman to play more off-man technique than he’s done in years past. At 6-foot, 200 pounds, Norman is a physical presence at the line of scrimmage and perfectly capable of jamming even the biggest wide receivers.
By playing off the receiver with some cushion, Norman can read the field more clearly. That doesn’t mean zone coverage the way Norman made his name in Carolina. He still resents that some saw him as a “system” cornerback who couldn’t thrive outside of the Panthers defense.
“Josh is very good when he can see the quarterback. He is a route-reading machine,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “There are different coverages where he can play off and see the quarterback and he can break on the ball as good as anybody.”
That theoretically will lead to more big plays without taking away from Norman’s ability to cover, even if the Redskins are in two-deep, three-deep or quarters coverages. It’s taking advantage of a skill set that comes naturally to Norman, but that not all corners possess. He has a knack for recognizing routes and the quickness still to beat the receiver to the spot.
“In a situation with Josh, we’re trying to play him a little bit off and have vision and see the quarterback, man-to-man situations and in zones,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “That’s something that he’s been taught a little bit before, but some of that is a little bit different. And he’s made some plays.”
Norman is in the second year of a five-year, $75 million contract ($36.5 million fully guaranteed) and there’s always a concern that a cornerback who will turn 30 in December will hit the wall sooner than later. But even if some would disagree that last year was Norman’s “best” season as a pro, he still provided immense value to a Washington defense that struggled overall.
“I think, by far, for me that was the best season I had,” Norman said. “I know when I was in Carolina I had two picks that went back to the house and all those other things. But last year was the year that I could actually stand on my own and say, ‘Okay, I can play whatever you want me to play, coach. Put me in.’ I can go in nickel. I can come off the edge. I can have a sack. I can have a big play. Smack a running back in the backfield. Whatever you need me to do. I’ll be the hammer, I’ll be the force.”
Some of that is typical Norman hyperbole. But the Redskins clearly trust him. Manusky has said this month during OTAs that Norman will trail the opposition’s best wide receiver this season. That didn’t happen early last year and it killed Washington, most notably in the season-opener against Pittsburgh and star receiver Antonio Brown. According to the web site Pro Football Focus, Norman allowed just one reception for every 13.5 cover snaps, which tied for fifth among all corners.
“When I came from over where I was at, they thought I was a system guy. I got that a lot,” Norman said. “I did the same thing [a reporter is] doing right now – chuckling and laughing. Because ‘Wow, you guys must really hate me for some reason.’ But it’s okay because we’re gonna show what we really can do. And then we came out and we done it.”
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