James Bradberry, instead of Josh Norman, quietly makes Panthers better

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Midway through the third quarter on Sunday, faced with second-and-13 from the Carolina Panthers' 18-yard line, New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. made a double move on James Bradberry.

The cornerback didn't bite. He kept tight coverage on the three-time Pro Bowl selection through the front corner of the end zone. Incompletion.

On the next play, Bradberry was in zone coverage when Beckham broke free over the middle. With safety Mike Adams sliding toward the middle of the field where the quarterback was looking, Bradberry recovered quickly and got his right arm between Beckham's hands.

He came within a whisker of making an amazing interception in the end zone.

After those plays, Bradberry didn't get in Beckham's face and talk trash as former Carolina corner Josh Norman did in that memorable 2015 game when the two stars were called for five unsportsmanlike penalties between them.

There wasn't any back and forth at all.

So, remember these plays from Bradberry. They might have been defining.

"You're looking at a guy that is pushing toward that elite level," Carolina defensive coordinator Eric Washington said.

It took just over two seasons, but it appears the Panthers finally have replaced Norman, who will be on the opposite sideline for Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game (Fox) at Washington.

You could argue they're better off.

Though the defense struggled without Norman in 2016, Bradberry has proved he can stick with the league's best wide receivers -- and without the brash attitude that sometimes gets Norman into hot water.

Over the past three games, Bradberry held Atlanta's Julio Jones, Cincinnati's A.J. Green and Beckham to a combined 18 catches on 31 targets for 254 yards and one touchdown. And on that one touchdown, a 33-yarder by Beckham, Bradberry was right there.

Opposite Bradberry, rookie Donte Jackson has replaced the swagger Norman brought to the secondary, something that Panthers coach Ron Rivera said before the season had been missing.

But here's what really makes the Panthers better off without Norman. Bradberry ($1,080,228) and Jackson ($875,005) count a combined $1,955,233 against the 2018 salary cap.

Norman counts $16,737,500 against the Washington cap. That's a difference of $14,782,267.

To put that in perspective, imagine the Carolina roster without defensive end Julius Peppers ($5 million), safety Eric Reid ($1,690,000), running back C.J. Anderson ($1,750,000), wide receiver Torrey Smith ($5 million) and left tackle Chris Clark ($592,941), who have a combined cap number of $14,032,941.

And consider Carolina is only $1,179,822 under the cap.

Had former Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman not rescinded the franchise tag that would have guaranteed Norman $13.952 million in 2016 and ultimately given him a long-term deal, current general manager Marty Hurney would have been strapped under the cap when he took over last year.

That's not to say Hurney couldn't have found a way to sign most of the above players, but it would have been more difficult and made the cap situation worse moving forward.

It would have been difficult to build the depth on the offensive line and other positions that have been key with the rash of injuries the Panthers have faced during a 3-1 start this season.

"I don't know," Washington said when asked if the Panthers finally have replaced Norman. "Josh is a great player. After Josh left, we just really focused on trying to develop the guys that are here. James has done a nice job, and Donte is a work in progress.

"We've gotten tremendous return on him already, and we anticipate some other things as we move forward."

'Major James'

Norman and quarterback Cam Newton had been jawing back and forth for a while during a damp morning training camp practice in 2015 when the cornerback picked off a pass.

As Norman headed down the left sideline for the end zone, Newton took chase. When Norman stiff-armed Newton in the helmet, the quarterback got into Norman's face.

A scuffle broke out.

Bradberry hasn't come close to a scuffle with Newton. He hasn't come close to a war of words.

"Major James is so quiet, super quiet," Newton said with a laugh. "He's a one-response type of guy."

That's with his play.

"Some guys have different personalities, and James' personality is let his play do his talking for him," Panthers nickel back Captain Munnerlyn said. "He's like Chris Gamble. That's the kind of spirit James brings."

Gamble is Carolina's all-time leader in interceptions, with 27 from 2004 to 2012. Like Bradberry, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, Gamble was a long, lean corner at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds.

Like Bradberry, Gamble often drew the assignment of the opponent's best receiver.

"Every week we have asked him the tough thing, and that's to play the best receiver," Rivera said. "He will continue to do that, because he is that kind of a quality corner in this league."

And Bradberry will do it without talking smack.

"When I was in Little League, I had quite a few guys that used to talk a lot," said Bradberry, who like Norman wears No. 24. "I've just always been that type of person that doesn't."

'Gift and curse'

Norman was benched 12 games into his rookie season at Carolina because he began freelancing within the defensive scheme. He did that again in Monday night's loss at the New Orleans Saints, again (briefly) landing him a spot on the bench.

"He's not a guy that hesitates to take chances," Newton said of Norman. "That's his gift and his curse. That doesn't negate making him a great player. I still go into each and every game pointing out who the impact players are, and he definitely is one of those players."

Newton calls Norman "fearless." Bradberry is more calculating; he plays within the system, focusing on what film study and coaches tell him.

Norman also is flamboyant. It's a characteristic that makes him a great cornerback -- and what made him a great participant earlier this year on "Dancing with the Stars."

"He's weird," Newton said of Norman. "But that's him. Some people look at me and say the same thing. Shoot, I don't care."

Newton and Norman have grown close off the field since Norman went to Washington. The two get together in the offseason for a "Family Feud"-type sporting event. "This offseason it was volleyball," Newton said.

Asked if he expected Norman to be motivated on Sunday since he's playing his former team and coming off a poor performance, Newton laughed and said, "I hope he ain't."

But Newton expects Norman to attempt to get into his head in a way Bradberry never would.

"He's loud," Newton said of Norman. "He gets into your personal bubble, like when you're talking face-to-face. I don't like that. Every person has a bubble. Josh is one to get all in your bubble and talk."


Norman's play and celebrity status rose to an all-time high during Carolina's Super Bowl run in 2015. He played well enough to get the franchise tag from Gettleman, who rescinded it after Norman didn't show for offseason workouts.

Asked what he could do with the saved cap space, Gettleman responded, "A lot."

The flexibility allowed Gettleman the room to sign Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short to a long-term deal and the Panthers to eventually extend the deals of linebacker Thomas Davis and tight end Greg Olsen.

The Panthers also got a compensatory third-round pick in 2017 for Norman and traded it to move up for defensive end Daeshon Hall, who didn't pan out.

But everything else has panned out -- over time. Bradberry hopes by now he has done enough to end the comparisons to Norman.

"You have to ask other people their opinion, but in my opinion, I think I have," Bradberry said.

Bradberry has been consistent since the Panthers selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft out of Stamford. Daryl Worley, picked in the third round, was traded following two inconsistent seasons for wide receiver Torrey Smith.

The Panthers got Jackson in the second round this year.

Norman's play hasn't been at the level it was since leaving Carolina. He gave up a passer rating of 114.1 when targeted last season, and Pro Football Focus has given him an average grade of 57.8 thus far in 2018.

Bradberry's grade isn't much higher, at 58.4, but for the price and the players he has faced so far, the Panthers will take it. The two third-quarter plays against Beckham are among several reasons why.

"He just doesn't panic," Washington said. "I don't see any panic in James' technique. Obviously, when that receiver, especially a receiver with great speed and burst, when he starts to eat up the cushion of that corner, sometimes that will undo the fundamentals you want that person to play with.

"He is playing with a lot of confidence right now."

And doing it quietly.