The Buffalo Bills have added some competition for Levi Wallace.
The team has agreed with veteran cornerback Josh Norman on a one-year contract, a league source told The Buffalo News on Monday. The deal, which was first reported by NFL Network, is worth $6 million, with incentives that can push the value to $8 million.
Norman, 32, is a known commodity. Bills General Manager Brandon Beane was part of the Carolina Panthers' front office when Norman was drafted in the fifth round in 2012. Playing in current Bills coach Sean McDermott’s defense with the Panthers, Norman grew to become a first-team All-Pro in 2015.
He signed a five-year contract with Washington as a free agent the following year. At the time, it was the richest contract ever for a cornerback in NFL history, with a potential value of $75 million. Norman was released in February with one year remaining on that deal.
The move, which saved the Redskins $12.5 million against the salary cap in 20202, was not a surprise after Norman played just 10 defensive snaps over the final six weeks.
The size of Norman's contract seems to indicate he'll at least have a chance to win a starting job. Wallace, a former undrafted free agent from Alabama, had shoulder surgery earlier this offseason. He also missed the team's playoff loss to Houston because of a sprained ankle.
"I have no doubt that Levi can go out there and earn it again, but we're not into just giving out jobs,” Beane said at the NFL Scouting Combine last month. “He knows that. He had a little offseason procedure on his shoulder. He's got to overcome that as well. So we have to protect ourselves. There can always be setbacks.”
At the very least, the Bills are counting on Norman to provide verteran depth. That's something the team had a big need for behind Tre’Davious White and Wallace. Last year’s backup boundary cornerback, Kevin Johnson, will become an unrestricted free agent next week after playing out a one-year contract.
"I was happy with Kevin. I thought he did a nice job," Beane said of Johnson, who played in just one game with the Houston Texans in 2018 before going on injured reserve due to a concussion. "I think missing a year, it probably took him a little time to get his feet back underneath him."
By the end of last season, Johnson was rotating in frequently for Wallace, who had some rocky moments in his second season.
"The coaches were probably more comfortable early on with Levi, but they were starting to split more reps and then Levi rolled his ankle and he jumped in there," Beane said of Johnson. "He was a former first-round pick. His biggest issue for his career has been durability. It's not been that he couldn't play the game. He played like 33 percent or something like that. He'll still have to go out and prove, whether it's playing with us and winning a starting job, or if he goes out to another team, I'm sure he's going to want to prove 'I can play even more than 33 percent of snaps.' It's something he'll have to answer. Until you do it, that's always a question."
Norman's deal doesn't necessarily rule out Johnson returning, but it lessens the likelihood of that happening. In Norman, the Bills are signing a veteran player who knows McDermott's defensive scheme. They are also getting a player who will be eager to get his career back on track.
Norman has struggled the past two seasons, allowing a total of 15 touchdown catches. Based on advanced stats tracked by pro-football-reference.com, Norman allowed catches on 57 of 86 targets in 2018 for a total of 733 yards, an average of 12.9 yards per catch. He gave up eight touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 109.3 in starting all 16 games. Last season, Norman started just eight games and appeared in 12. He gave up 31 catches of 46 targets for 444 yards, seven touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 129.0.
The Bills are banking on a return to a familiar defense and a complementary role helping Norman rediscover his old form.
"We’re very familiar with Josh," Beane said at the Combine. We had some great years with him. I remember the day we drafted him and where he grew from."
By signing Norman before the official start of free agency, Beane continued a trend from last season. During the 2019 offseason, he signed Johnson and guard Spencer Long after they were released by the Texans and Jets, respectively.
“If it's a guy that fits what you need – whatever the hole is – and he fits our DNA, it's nice to have a box checked off,” Beane told The Buffalo News at the Combine of getting a head start on free agency. “OK, this was a need that we needed to address in free agency, and we got it now. I’m definitely monitoring that."
Signing Norman won't count against the compensatory draft formula, which might improve the Bills' chance of having a net loss in free agency. That could result in a 2021 draft pick being awarded by the league next offseason.
By pursuing players released before the start of the league year, the Bills can also do it more on their own terms.
“It keeps you from having to necessarily chase when the dollars start getting high in free agency,” Beane said. “You're generally going to spend on the edge of where you're comfortable or maybe even slightly above in free agency if you're chasing guys that five, six other teams are after.”
It's believed Norman had other suitors in free agency, but he ultimately decided that joining a familiar defensive scheme with an established No. 1 cornerback was his best fit.