Panthers CB Norman out to prove he’s elite in contract year

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Josh Norman told everyone who’d listen in July that he’s one of the elite cover men in the NFL.

Now the Carolina Panthers fourth-year cornerback is beginning to back up those bold claims.

The former fifth-round pick is off to a fast start, being named NFC Defensive Player of the Month on Thursday after helping the Panthers start 3-0 for the first time since 2003.

”I’m trying to make an impact every time I step on the field to help my teammates out,” Norman said.

He’s done just that.

He has 15 tackles, five pass breakups and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a momentum-turning touchdown in Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars and another last Sunday with 1:09 left that helped seal Carolina’s 27-22 win over the New Orleans Saints. He’s also forced and recovered a fumble.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Norman is ”on his way” to living up to his claim of being one of the game’s elite cornerbacks.

Norman hasn’t backed off his comments, adding Thursday that, ”I’m not going down, I’m only going to continue to get better and go up higher.”

He climbed the ladder on Sunday.

Norman’s leaping interception in the end zone as he was falling backward against Luke McCown on Sunday turned some heads around the country.

It turns out Norman made almost the same catch in a recent practice against Cam Newton.

Newton said that play left him angry at the time, but now he’s glad it happened.

”I think it is safe to say that I gave him his preparation for (Luke) McCown trying to throw the fade to him,” Newton joked. ”It is incredible to see practice carry over to the game.”

Said Rivera: ”He practices the way he plays."

Rivera said Norman’s strength is his outstanding vision, which allows him to pick up where the ball is quickly. It helps too that he has great leaping ability, long arms and outstanding hands for a cornerback.

While a freelancer of sorts earlier in his NFL career – something that cost him his starting job early in 2013 – Norman has learned to play within defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s system.

Well, for the most part.

There are still times he’s out of position, but his aggressiveness and natural ball-hawking skills are something the Panthers don’t want to deter.

McDermott has grown so confident in Norman that he’s matched him up against the opposition’s top wide receiver in the first three games of the season.

This Sunday Norman will likely go head-to-head with Mike Evans, who was targeted 17 times last week by rookie quarterback Jameis Winston.

”He’s done some nice things,” Rivera said. ”He still makes some mistakes – and elites do – but he’s headed in that direction.”

Norman’s success couldn’t come at a better time for his career.

He’s in his contract year with the Panthers and setting himself up for a huge pay day next February when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

The Panthers thought about re-signing Norman this past offseason, but had other priorities that included doling out big contract extensions to quarterback Cam Newton, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and tight end Greg Olsen.

”I pretty much don’t even care about it,” Norman said of his next contract. ”All I care about is winning games and being the best I can be on the field at that time and in that moment. Whenever it happens, it happens.”

Norman, 27, was excused from practice Thursday for what coach Ron Rivera deemed a ”personal day.” He arrived in time for the open locker room session wearing street clothes and is expected to play Sunday.

Norman acknowledged he was a little bitter after he didn’t get NFC Player of the Week honors in the season opener, so he was excited about being recognized for his play for the month.

”I guess it worked out in my favor,” Norman said with a laugh.

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