Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
* * * **
ASK THE LEAGUE: Should Josh Norman consistently cover WR1s?
The Twitter-verse has been on fire since the Monday Night Football showdown between the Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers. Players, analysts and fans have been debating Josh Norman's value as a CB1 after the Redskins refused to assign the Pro Bowl corner to Antonio Brown despite his status as one of the premier cover corners in the game. With so much debate about the $15 million man, I thought I would reach out to my scouting buddies to see how they would use the highest-paid corner in the game. Here's my question and their responses:
NFC scout: "Yes, but I think it depends on if the head coach and front office want to expose their mistake ... They gave Revis money to a guy who played a lot of zone and had a mean pass rush."
AFC pro personnel director: "If I'm paying that kind of money, you're shutting one side of the field down. ... The problem occurs when you have to follow a guy around who can line up anywhere on the field. You can get some bad matchups for the rest of your guys."
AFC senior personnel executive: "I think he should, but I also believe the coordinator could put him on the No. 2 receiver and play Cover 2 over the top of the No. 1 receiver or double the No. 1 all day. Surely, a $15 million corner can shut down a No.2. ... I don't know if I would've had him match AB because he can struggle against small receivers with good quickness. I think he might've had some problems because he doesn't have great reactionary quickness or recovery speed."
AFC pro scouting director: "Ideally, I would want to match him up with the top receiver. It's as simple as the coaches adjusting their scheme to fit their personnel, but there are some other things to consider. ... If you lock him up with the No. 1 receiver and he aligns in the slot, is your normal slot corner comfortable playing on the outside? Do your coaches have the kind of flexibility in their scheme or philosophy? If not, you're paying a lot of money to a 'one-sided' cover corner. ... That's how mistakes are made in free agency."
NFC pro personnel director: "When you claim to be the best, you should cover the opponent's top guy, especially if the guy on the other side (Bashaud Breeland) is struggling."
I knew that Josh Norman was a polarizing figure amongst his peers, but I was surprised at how NFL executives responded to the question. I walked away from these conversations feeling that few evaluators view Norman as a premier guy, and they question whether he is an ideal fit as a CB1 in a man-to-man scheme. Moreover, I had several scouts express serious concerns about his age, athleticism and discipline as an elite corner. One of the NFC scouts told me that his "freelancing ways" almost put him in jeopardy (of losing a roster spot) as a young player, and he wondered how well he would fare in a system that required him to cover for extended periods without a ferocious pass rush forcing errant passes from the pocket.
I also thought it was interesting how several guys mentioned the challenges of having the CB1 "travel" with the opponent's top receiver. While it is a novel concept to have the top corner snuff out the opponent's No.1 receiver, it forces several players to adjust and embrace different responsibilities. That's why some coaches resist the urge to match up their CB1s without the opponent's WR1. Although you're able to take away a top weapon, the uncertainty created by guys playing unfamiliar spots creates big play chances for the opponents.Thus, the team is better served to play their corners on designated sides and allow the 11 defenders to do what they do best on the field.
Overall, I believe the Redskins are in a tough spot when attempting to figure out what to do with Norman on the perimeter. Despite the dissenting opinions of my scouting colleagues, Norman has played well as a pro and shown he's capable of neutralizing top receivers when allowed to travel with them all over the field (see Julio Jones in 2014-15, Dez Bryant in 2015, and Demaryius Thomas in Super Bowl 50). He will challenge premier receivers with his feisty ways, and his bump-and-run skills are very effective when he utilizes the proper technique at the line of scrimmage. Now, I do believe he is ideally suited to play in a zone-based defense because it allows him to clue the quarterback (read the quarterback's eyes) and pattern read (defender keys and diagnoses route concepts to determine where the ball is expected to be thrown). In addition, I also know that he plays at his best when allowed to freelance a bit or take chances in coverage. As long as he communicates with his teammates and they are willing to compensate for his gambling ways (safety will cheat to Norman's side when he is expected to jump a route, etc.), I believe he should be allowed to take some calculated risks based on his pre-game film study. This is something the great cover corners have always done and Norman's resume should afford them that luxury in the Redskins' scheme.
As far as Norman's athletic limitations and speed deficiencies, I agree with my colleagues on their assessment of his skills. He is not a world-class athlete on the perimeter and does struggle with shifty receivers with explosive quickness, but he has worked around those flaws to hold up against some of the best players in the game. In fact, Norman fared well in his limited reps with Antonio Brown in Week 1 and didn't look overwhelmed when facing Sammy Watkinsin a preseason battle that appeared to have some regular-season intensity. I know that's not exactly enough information to make a determination on whether Norman should travel or not, it is a glimpse of his potential impact as a CB1 in the Redskins' scheme. Whether he stays on the left side or eventually flip flops based on matchups, Norman is good enough to hold down his side with little help from a safety. I just don't know if it ever will be worth the $15 million a year that the Redskins are shelling out for his services.