JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell had to be just as shocked as the rest of the football world Wednesday afternoon when the Carolina Panthers announced they were pulling the nonexclusive franchise tag from cornerback Josh Norman because they didn't believe they'd be able to work out a long-term deal.
Then Caldwell should have smiled, picked up the phone, called Norman's agent, Michael George, and said, "Let's talk."
The Jaguars should make a serious run at Norman, and they're in the best position of any team to land the All-Pro cornerback. They've handed out $74.9 million in guaranteed money since March 9, behind only the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders, yet the Jaguars have the most cap space available ($53.66 million).
Norman wants to be the NFL's highest-paid cornerback. That's currently Darrelle Revis, who signed a five-year, $70.1 million contract with $39 million guaranteed with the New York Jets in 2015. Revis makes $14.02 million per year, followed by Patrick Peterson ($14.01 million annually) and Richard Sherman ($14 million annually). Norman, who was due to make $13.952 million in 2016, reportedly wants $16 million annually.
The Jaguars can hit that number, and they can do it by front-loading a deal that gives Norman the bulk of his guarantee over the next two to three seasons. The Jaguars do have high-dollar contracts to work out over the next few seasons with receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson, but they don't have to worry about quarterback Blake Bortles until after the 2018 season because of the fifth-year option in his rookie deal.
The Jaguars have structured contracts for the free agents they've signed over the past two seasons to have higher guarantees in the first several years and be more team-friendly in the latter half. The Jaguars can do the same for Norman. A five-year deal worth $80 million, with $50 million guaranteed and front-loaded in the first three years, would be worth exploring.
The Jaguars' No. 1 priority this offseason has been to fix the defense. They've added defensive tackle Malik Jackson, free safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Prince Amukamara for a combined $67 million in guaranteed money.
Norman would raise that total considerably, but he also would give the Jaguars an elite corner opposite Davon House, who set a franchise record with 23 pass breakups in 2015. Add in Gipson, who has 13 interceptions over the past three seasons, and the Jaguars would have a young, ball-hawking secondary in place for years.
The Jaguars could then focus on adding a pass-rusher in the first round of next week's draft. That, along with the free agents, the return to health of defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks and the debut of defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., should make the Jaguars' defense significantly better. That would make them legitimate AFC South contenders.
All Caldwell has to do to start the process is make the call.