When you hear the scrutiny but it's still August. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Based on headlines, Washington's training camp has been the worst two weeks of Josh Norman's career.
Read CBS's "DeSean Jackson keeps on torching Josh Norman at Redskins practice," or Bleacher Report's "Will Josh Norman Find Disaster or Renewed Dominance in New Redskins Defense?" and you might wonder why Washington's NFL franchise bothered paying Norman this offseason.
And man, was he paid. The first team All-Pro signed a five-year, $75 million contract with Washington in April, making him the NFL's highest paid cornerback. That's why the videos of Redskins' wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon beating Norman in one-on-one drills sent the media into a frenzy. The same guy who allowed the lowest passer rating among all cornerbacks in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus, was suddenly getting burned by every wide receiver that lined up against him. Was the 28-year-old only good when supported and surrounded by the talent and schemes of his former team, the Carolina Panthers?
Of course not, said Washington general manager Scot McCloughan. After all, it's only early August.
"When we do one-on-ones, especially with a guy like Jackson, that drill is for the receiver to win it," McCloughan said this week. "They can go anywhere they want to go, they can go left, they can go right, deep, they can do whatever they want to do. But today, his first three times on [Jackson], he shut him down. He's pressing him, he's competing, and the good thing is that it makes both of them better."
Given that Washington's pass defense ranked 25th in the NFL last year, it's easy to understand the extra scrutiny—and mild media hysteria—surrounding Norman's performance in what amounts to glorified practice. The cornerback doesn't see himself as a savior, but Washington didn't make him one of the league's marquee offseason acquisitions in order to just fit in.
Over the first three weeks of the regular season, Norman will face Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, Dallas' Dez Bryant, and Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants, arguably the top three receivers in the NFL. Based on what he has seen from Norman in training camp, Washington tight end Vernon Davis isn't worried about how his teammate will fare.
"Josh has had a tremendous camp so far, he's getting better and better," Davis said. "I don't see any matchup problems for Josh. I think, in my eyes, he's one of the best to do it right now. All the guys those first few weeks (of the regular season) are top of the crop, but I know that we have a good corner on our side. He's up for the challenge."
During a two-hour practice on Tuesday, Norman did little to foster a new set of negative headlines. As McCloughan pointed out, the cornerback shut down Jackson in their first three pairings. There may be no getting used to Jackson's speed and quickness—the speedy receiver remains one of the NFL's most explosive players—but Norman no longer looks surprised when Jackson cuts on a blade of grass. He seems to be anticipating the wide receiver's routes better, too.
After practice, Norman stayed on the field longer than any of his teammates, catching 200 balls from different angles and distances over the course of an hour. At one point, he had a stretch of 48 grabs in a row. "I've caught 100 (passes) before, straight," Norman said afterward. "It just helps me focus and lock in. It helps me transition to the type of game I want to have."
Norman joins fellow cornerback Bashaud Breeland and safeties David Bruton and DeAngelo Hall as starters in Washington's secondary. On paper, they should be stronger than 2015's unit, especially since the Redskins use mostly zone defense, which played to Norman's strengths when he was in Carolina.
"I think the secondary that we have right now is formidable," Norman said. "It's the most explosive, athletic secondary that I've been a part of in a while. I think the guys, they bring a different set of tools, each and every one of them capable of doing something more so than the other guy."