Uh-oh. A well-known NFL player unexpectedly enters the free-agent market and guess who swoops in and signs him within 48 hours? The Washington Redskins, of course. To be more specific: the Daniel Snyder-owned Washington Redskins.
Friday's deal to sign cornerback Josh Norman, whose franchise tag the Carolina Panthers rescinded this week, felt at first blush like an old-school Snyder production. Reports of private jets, caravans of black SUVs and Hall of Fame alumni visits conjured memories of days when the Redskins threw silly money at everyone they could, from Albert Haynesworth to Adam Archuleta to Jeff George, often with disastrous results.
Norman's contract is worth $75 million over five years, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. At an average of $15 million annually, Norman is now the highest-paid cornerback in football by nearly $1 million per year. It was a deal that the Panthers, who know Norman best, wanted no part of, for reasons that were both philosophical and financial.
But I'll leave for another day the issue of whether Snyder already has neutered general manager Scot McCloughan, a football grinder who is more at home in the draft room than the free-agent market. Instead, let's focus on whether this deal improves at all from the Redskins' long and unfortunate history with big-money free agents.
Good news: Josh Norman is unquestionably elite
This contract is not the same as giving 33-year-old Deion Sanders $8 million for the 2000 season in a deal that strapped the Redskins' salary cap for years or overlooking the obvious issues of work ethic in handing Haynesworth $36 million to play two seasons. By all accounts, Norman is a hard worker, having built himself up from humble beginnings as a fifth-round draft pick, and at 28, he should be playing at his highest level.
Norman can play in man or zone schemes, as ESPN colleague Matt Bowen points out, and it would be a stunner if he were not an excellent asset for the Redskins in 2016.
Caution: Impact of cornerbacks
There is widespread debate about the impact of high-end cornerbacks relative to the market.
On the one hand, consider the top five defenses last season based on opponents' Total Quarterback Rating (QBR). Most of them had high-level cornerback play. The Kansas City Chiefs boasted Sean Smith and rookie Marcus Peters. The Denver Broncos had Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., the Panthers had Norman and the New York Jets had Darrelle Revis. (The fifth team was the Houston Texans.)
On the other hand, all five of those teams ranked among the NFL's top 10 in pressure rates. So did those teams stop opposing quarterbacks because of great coverage in the back end? Or because they had an excellent pass rush? It seems reasonable to think it required both, and many teams -- including the Panthers -- prioritize the latter from a salary-cap perspective.
Last season, the Redskins' defense ranked No. 28 in pressure rate. Norman can't do much to help there, and no cornerback -- no matter how skilled -- can hold coverage when a quarterback has more than ample time.
In a nutshell, that's why many teams choose not to invest elite-level money in the cornerback position. There are now only four cornerbacks earning $14 million annually, according to ESPN Stats & Information data, and the 10 players in the chart are the only corners averaging as much as $10 million per year.
Bad news: Norman's age
The chart also presents the age of those 10 cornerbacks when the season began after signing their contracts. Note that Norman is tied for the second-oldest at 28, and he'll turn 29 in December. If my math is right, he'll be 31 at the end of his third year in this deal.
As I noted earlier this week, there are only a handful of cornerbacks in the NFL over the age of 31 at the moment, and only one -- the Cincinnati Bengals' Adam Jones -- made the Pro Bowl in 2015. No one can predict exactly when Norman will begin his inevitable decline, but this contract is betting on him beating the odds and playing at an elite level when most comparable players have fallen off.
Without question, Norman is going to make the Redskins' 2016 defense better. And without knowing the exact structure of his guarantees, it's difficult to calculate the salary-cap damage -- if any -- if it is terminated early.
But the Redskins, in true Snyder form, bid themselves to a premium level on Friday to ensure Norman would not take a visit with another team. They now have two major cap commitments at cornerback, with Norman and Chris Culliver, not to mention DeAngelo Hall, who is moving to safety.
That commitment is to a position that can be exposed, no matter how talented, by a pass-rush weakness the Redskins demonstrated last season. And most of it is wrapped up in a player who, as best as anyone can reasonably estimate, is in the final stages of his prime.
Now you can see why the Panthers moved on, and why in the end, there was only one team -- the New Orleans Saints, per Schefter -- still in the bidding. The Redskins didn't get suckered, as they have in the past, because Norman is still a great player. But they paid a price that almost no one else would. That by definition seems like an overpayment to me.