Carolina Panthers Pull a Bill Belichick

From time to time NFL GMs must make difficult moves in order to preserve cap space or set their team up for a Super Bowl run. Last week GM Dave Gettleman made a move that saw the Carolina Panthers pull a Bill Belichick. Dave Archibald explains how Gettleman’s move is reminiscent of a move the Patriots made earlier this offseason, and how the GM considered cap space and scheme fit when deciding to rescind the franchise tag on star cornerback Josh Norman.

Dave Gettleman and the rest of the Panthers front office have done an outstanding job in recent seasons, cleaning up the onerous contracts predecessor Marty Hurney signed and finding pieces to augment the team through budget free agency and the draft, while also showing patience working through growing pains with head coach Ron Rivera. Most importantly, they built a team with an identity: a run-heavy offense keyed by reigning MVP Cam Newton, and a swarming zone defense built around the best linebacking corps in the NFL. All of it culminated in a breakthrough 2015 season, when Carolina went 15-1 in the regular season and reached Super Bowl 50.

One of the stars that emerged in 2015 was fourth-year cornerback Josh Norman, who nabbed four interceptions and deflected 18 passes en route to first-team All Pro honors. No team spent less on cornerbacks than the Panthers, who deployed Norman and Bene Benwikere on their rookie contracts and inexpensive veterans Charles Tillman, Cortland Finnegan, and Robert McClain. Thanks to Norman, the scheming of Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, and the outstanding front seven, the secondary delivered far beyond the team’s meagre investment in the position.

There was only one problem: Norman was headed to free agency after his monster year. Carolina tendered him with the non-exclusive franchise tag, locking him up for 2016 so they could figure out a long term plan. Would they sign the 28-year-old Norman to a long-term deal? Dip into the draft for a young replacement and ride out the season? Play out the season and re-assess?

The Panthers chose none of those options. On April 20th, they rescinded the franchise tag, effectively cutting ties with Norman and putting the cornerback on the free agent market. It was a shocking move for a team that had little depth at the position, and drew plenty of criticism. It was a move with recent precedent, however. A little over a month earlier, the New England Patriots made a very similar move, trading star edge rusher Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals.

Gettleman isn’t crazy. He was just doing what Bill Belichick would have done.

The Chandler Jones Problem

The Patriots have drafted only one edge rusher with a top-50 pick since de facto general manager Belichick took over in 2000; no team has gone to the well less often. That one pick was Jones, who the Patriots traded up for in 2012 and chose with the 21st pick. Jones has been a strong contributor for New England, leading his draft class with 36 sacks in only 55 career games. Despite that production, Belichick dealt him to the Arizona Cardinals with one year and a shade under $8M left on his rookie deal.

The famously tight-lipped coach isn’t likely to disclose the full balance of factors that went into the trade, but he gave a hint on April 7th during the keynote speech at the Salesforce.com conference:

One of the things we’ve tried to do is to be a little bit of an outlier in some respects. When I came to the Patriots in 2000, as the head coach, we played a 3-4 defense, and we only had really two teams in the NFL- us and the Pittsburgh Steelers – that ran the 3-4. We had quite a bit of success, won three Super Bowls in four years, and by 2005 half the league was playing a 3-4 defense.

So when I came here trying to find a nose tackle, like Ted Washington, it was easy because nobody else wanted them. Five years later, if we were looking for a nose tackle, there was probably five other teams in the draft ahead of us, so we’ve kind of had to find different players, different schemes – whether it be tight-end-based offenses, or whether it be going from an odd to an even front defense, or whatever it happened to be – just trying to find different ways to capitalize on the talent that’s available.

Otherwise, we’re going to get the 5th, 6th, 7th best guy at whatever the positions is, so we’ve tried to take kind of more away in areas that have been less populated.

The Patriots have posted a winning record every season since Tom Brady ascended to quarterback in 2001. They rarely have an opportunity to pick high in the draft where many of the game’s best edge rushers – like Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, the second overall pick in 2011 – are available. Having an edge rusher like Jones was a luxury for the Patriots; certainly the talented defender helped, but building a top defense around edge rushers would be unsustainable long term for New England. They needed a different way.

Inside Out

The shifting strategy that Belichick outlines above has made it difficult to reduce his career to a soundbite. He isn’t synonymous with a particular style of offense or defense the way that contemporaries Tony Dungy (Tampa 2), Pete Carroll (Press Cover 3), or Mike Shanahan (Zone Blocking West Coast Offense) are. His preferences for scheme and personnel are not always easy to pin down.

Occasionally, however, he gives a glimpse into his priorities. One such hint came after the team’s Super Bowl XLIX victory. Belichick faced hard decisions with many of the key contributors to his defensive backfield, a top group integral to the team’s championship run. He declined options on starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and cut longtime nickelback Kyle Arrington. New England funneled much of the money saved to safety Devin McCourty, who signed a five-year deal worth $47.5M, including $22M guaranteed that ranks first among safeties.

Building around safeties, rather than edge rushers, makes sense according to the “outlier” logic Belichick outlined in his speech. Teams typically feel safety is not a premium position and rarely select safeties in the top half of the first round. Moreover, perhaps no position has more variance from team to team in how it is utilized. Safeties can be asked to patrol the deep middle or a deep half, rob a shallow zone, blitz, serve as an extra linebacker in run support, cover a slot receiver or tight end man-to-man, or any combination from play to play. All of this adds up to a situation where the Patriots can find “their guy” at the position in the second or third round. They can consistently build around safety and pretty much guarantee access to top players on a regular basis.

That appears to be generally what they’ve done. When the team parted ways with Lawyer Milloy on the eve of the 2003 season, it wasn’t a sign that they devalued the position – the team had already made one of the highest-profile signings of the Belichick era in Rodney Harrison, and they paired him with 36th overall pick Eugene Wilson. Since 2000 they’ve taken three safeties with top-50 picks – only San Francisco leads them with four – and that doesn’t include Wilson or McCourty, both of whom were technically drafted as cornerbacks but moved to the back end early on.

Two positions aside from safety that New England seems to value are linebackers and defensive linemen. The only top-10 picks of the Belichick era have been in these spots – Tennessee ‘backer Jerod Mayo in 2008, and big Richard Seymour out of Georgia in 2001. New England’s two most recent first-round picks, the recently-cut Dominique Easley and Malcolm Brown, are both defensive tackles, and the team boasts two highly-drafted linebackers in 2012 first-rounder Dont’a Hightower and 2013 second-rounder Jamie Collins. Like Jones, Hightower and Collins are slated to be free agents in the 2017 offseason. The Patriots weren’t going to be able to re-sign all of them, and a team built around off-ball linebackers – like safety, not a “premium” position – is a more sustainable model.

For Belichick and the Patriots, the choice became obvious. Branch Rickey, perhaps the greatest general manager in the history of American sport, once said, “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late,” and Belichick took that advice, dealing Jones to Arizona for a second round pick and talented-but-inconsistent guard Jonathan Cooper, who may help shore up a leaky offensive line. It also frees up Jones’ salary to allocate elsewhere – perhaps to extensions for Hightower or Collins.

Down on the Corner

The Panthers faced a nearly identical dilemma. Like the Patriots, their defense is built from the inside out. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis comprise perhaps the best linebacking duo in the NFL, and Carolina added the versatile Shaq Thompson with their 2015 first-round pick. For Gettleman’s first draft in 2013, he attacked the interior defensive line, choosing Star Lotulelei in the first round and Kawann Short in the second. Despite edge rushers that are only average, the Panthers have one of the best front sevens in football.

That takes the pressure off the secondary. Kuechly’s tremendous range in the middle of the field reduces the amount of space that the defensive backs need to cover on the perimeter and on the back end. They don’t need a McCourty or a Revis or a Richard Sherman to make their defense go. And they don’t need Norman.

Of course, while they don’t need Norman, he certainly was a valuable contributor, particularly on his rookie deal. Starting with the franchise tag in 2016, however, he was about to become expensive. If the Panthers spend the cornerback franchise number of $14M on Norman it would leave  less money under the salary cap for other positions. A top cornerback might be worth that to a team that will use him to lock down a top receiver all over the field, but not to the Panthers, who ask their corners to patrol zones on most snaps. Carolina’s options were to overpay Norman to keep him or to change their scheme to one that could get that kind of value out of a defensive back. Gettleman and the Panthers recognized that neither option was desirable.

While the Patriots were able to work out a trade for Jones, that wasn’t an option for Gettleman and the Panthers. Norman had not signed his franchise tender, so he was not under contract and could not be traded. The prospect of the cornerback holding out could paralyze Gettleman’s offseason plans, leaving the team uncertain whether to replace Norman or expect him back. By cutting him now, they also stand to gain a compensation pick in the 2017 draft. Rescinding the franchise tag was their best option to get on with the process of building their team for 2016 and for the future.

The Future

Losing talented players like Jones and Norman hurts. For both New England and Carolina, the move likely means something of a step back in 2016, a new hole that must be accounted for. Given how competitive both teams were in 2015, such a hiccup certainly might be frustrating to their respective fan bases. However, there is reason in both cases to believe the loss won’t be as painful as many pundits might suggest.

The Patriots have other options at edge rusher. Prior to last season, the team inked Jabaal Sheard to a two-year deal, and the former Brown tallied eight sacks in barely 50% of the team’s defensive snaps. He is a candidate to put up Jones-like numbers with similar playing time (Jones played nearly 80% of the team’s snaps). Second-year players Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers or free agent pickup Chris Long can fill Sheard’s role and provide depth. And the Patriots aren’t limited to attempting to replace Jones one-for-one. They can shift back to more of a 3-4 scheme, creating confusion as to who will be rushing on a given play and using misdirection to make up for the dropoff in talent.

The Panthers have less in the way of immediate reinforcements, though they added former Eagle and Steeler Brandon Boykin and have Benwikere returning from injury. However, their scheme provides a player acquisition edge over most teams. The trend league-wide is toward big press cornerbacks who can thrive in man schemes or the hybrid Cover 3 systems that the Seattle Seahawks have made popular. The pure zone schemes that dominated much of the last decade – in Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, and Chicago, for example – have fallen out of favor. That makes the Panthers one of Belichick’s “outliers” – they’re looking for zone corners while the rest of the league wants man-to-man defenders. Carolina took advantage of this last year, inking Charles Tillman – one of the best cornerbacks of his generation – to a one year contract for less than $2M.

The Panthers now have the $14M allocated to Norman plus next week’s draft to fill out their secondary. But they don’t necessarily need to use their first-round pick or spend big money to add to their defensive backfield. Because they’re looking for different players than much of the rest of the league, there’s a good chance they can find what they’re looking for with modest signings or mid-round picks. That lets them invest their resources elsewhere, such as fortifying their front seven depth, finding an heir apparent to running back Jonathan Stewart, or adding a weapon for Newton in the passing game.

It could not have been an easy decision for the Panthers brass to let Norman go. He’s a talented player, in his prime, and Carolina came painfully close to the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory last year. But rescinding the franchise tag was a matter of identity. Paying Norman what he’s worth – and Norman’s performance in 2015 would absolutely have been worth $10M or more to many teams – doesn’t fit with who the Panthers are. Gettleman ultimately faced the same decision that Belichick did, and he made the same choice. That might hurt in the short term, but in the long run doing what Belichick would has proven to be sound strategy.

Follow @davearchie on Twitter. Check out his other work here, or his scouting profile of DeAndre Houston-Carson and the hidden game of Super Bowl 50.

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2 thoughts on “Carolina Panthers Pull a Bill Belichick

  1. I have to sing praises to this article. I’ve been following the Patriots for many years but never saw their draft strategy under this lens. Knowing they zig when others zag is one thing; methodically studying how they create antidotes to the strategies they popularize is nothing short of brilliant.

    This also means Carolina has risen to the upper echelons of GM management and that you don’t expect them to regress much if at all in the following years.

    Again, thank you for this insight.

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      I don’t think the Panthers are likely to go 15-1 again but that organization is really well-run, top-to-bottom. I think they’ll be competitive in the NFC for a while.

      – Dave

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