How high can Josh Norman lift Washington's secondary?

Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman (24) in action against the Atlanta Falcons during an NFL football game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015. (Chris Keane/AP Images for Panini)

Washington has fielded a pretty poor secondary for a few seasons now. The group had the lowest cumulative coverage grade in 2014, and improved to 25th last year. With that in mind, the team made a handful of moves during the offseason, the biggest being the signing of CB Josh Norman after his franchise tag was rescinded by the Panthers.

After a solid 2014 campaign where Norman became the starter mid-way through the season for Carolina, he had a meteoric rise in 2015, particularly the first half of the season. He was the highest-graded cornerback in coverage through the first 12 weeks, and finished 11th on our top 101 players of 2015 list, one spot behind the versatile Tyrann Mathieu for the first overall cornerback. As we head into the 2016 season, Senior Analyst Sam Monson ranked Norman as the 36th-best player in the league right now.

When opposing quarterbacks targeted Norman in the regular season, they had just a 54.0 passer rating—the lowest rating into any cornerback’s coverage in the league. Including the postseason, their rating was 58.1, and in the Super Bowl, Norman was targeted four times, had two pass defenses, and did not allow a single catch. In games against top receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Dez Bryant, and Julio Jones, Norman allowed a combined 18 catches for 204 yards, with one interception and two pass defenses across seven total games.

Some have knocked Norman because he’s not the typical man-coverage, No. 1 WR-tracking cornerback. It’s true that Carolina does play more zone-coverage than most teams in the league. However, he did show he can play both outside corner positions, as well as the slot, and is effective when manning-up on a receiver. Zone-coverage is where he truly excels because of his skill-set and playing style, which should not be seen as a knock. Seattle’s Richard Sherman has been regarded as one of the best corners in the league for a few years now, yet Seattle plays more zone-coverage than anyone. If anything, zone-coverage allows defenders more opportunities to make a play on the ball.

Washington was not far behind Carolina in amount of zone-coverage called, which makes it a very good fit for Norman. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry will likely continue to employ more single-high safety coverages than Norman dealt with in Carolina, and the former Panther will still be asked to play a decent amount of man-coverage , but he should have no issue with either. Norman’s addition also gives the secondary a true top No. 1 corner that it hasn’t had since DeAngelo Hall’s first couple years with the team, as Hall’s play had fallen off the last few years.

As for Washington’s secondary in its entirety, Norman’s addition will be a significant upgrade. However, one player alone is not likely to turn them into a top unit. Washington also made moves to part ways with Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver, which could be seen as addition by subtraction, in a way. Bashaud Breeland is on the right path to becoming a solid NFL starter, earning the 21st-best overall grade among NFL CBs last season. DeAngelo Hall moved to safety midseason last year and produced both good and poor showings, but now will have had an entire offseason to adjust to the new position. For the other starting safety spot, Washington brought in David Bruton during free agency to compete with Duke Ihenacho. Rookie Su’a Cravens may also see time in sub-packages as a linebacker/safety hybrid.

Washington still likely won’t feature a top-10 caliber secondary, but they have made moves to improve the back end; Josh Norman, the second-best CB in the league last season, is going to be the most important part of that unit.

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