Josh Norman to the 49ers doesn’t sound all that realistic

Maybe the 49ers aren’t really all that interested in Josh Norman. You know how these things go when an agent start texting reporters and suddenly there’s a feeding frenzy for his client. The 49ers are an easy mark for this, because they have over $50 million in cap space and the only high-priced free agent they’ve been linked to was another cornerback, Sean Smith, who ultimately chose to sign with the Raiders.

The D.C. Snyders picked up Norman and his family — who hail from South Carolina — in a private jet. (No truth to the rumor that Jed York emailed Norman a Spirit Airlines ticket for a middle seat, on a cross-country flight, with two stops on its way from Baltimore to Oakland.) Snyder and Scot McCloughan are the favorites to land Norman, and Ian Rapoport says “it could play out fairly quickly.” In which case, it might not matter if the 49ers were interested in Norman or not.

But if the 49ers truly are a favorite for Norman’s services, instead of the “other” team his reps are using to drive up his price, it seems like a curious decision at this point in the offseason.

The Panthers weren’t expected to rescind their franchise tag of Norman, simply because it rarely happens. Also, Norman was one of the most high-profile corners in the league in 2015, and not just because of the craziness with Odell Beckham. But there are so many things about Norman that make this seem like a very un-49ers move … again, if they actually have serious interest.

Norman is 28 years old.

Which means he could be in his prime, but aren’t the 49ers at least a year or two away from playoff contention?

Norman is demanding big money.

That’s a huge haul for a guy that didn’t do a whole lot before 2015.

A contract like the one Adam Schefter described would also make Norman the highest-paid player on the 49ers — ahead of Joe Staley. And NaVorro Bowman. And even Colin Kaepernick, who is slated to make $14.3 million this year if he attends the requisite workouts, minicamps, etc. The 49ers haven’t been known to give this kind of money to outsiders, and they certainly haven’t shown the willingness to give quarterback money to a corner.

Norman may not be a fit.

From USA Today:

The Panthers defense is built around a strong defensive line and the best linebacker pairing in the NFL in All-pros Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Over the last few seasons, GM Dave Gettleman has been able to skimp on the secondary and still produce top-10 defenses. Paying Norman what would amount to quarterback money would make it nearly impossible for Carolina to keep its front-seven intact.

Star defensive tackle Kawann Short is entering the final year of his deal, and letting Norman walk now will clear up the space for the Panthers to get him locked up long-term. Short is more integral to the team’s defense and his success isn’t tied to any one strategy like Norman’s has been with zone coverage.

It’s nice to have a guy like Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman, or Aqib Talib, who can come awfully close to shutting down top wide receivers on a weekly basis. But Norman thrives in zone coverage, which means if the 49ers signed him, they would have to tailor their defense to Norman’s strengths unless they wanted their expensive cornerback to fail.

The 49ers have holes bigger than the current one at cornerback.

I’m probably on my own little “BASG Island” when I write this, but I don’t think cornerback is a huge need. At least not compared to these holes, anyway:

  • Wide receiver
  • Athletic offensive linemen other than Joe Staley
  • 3-4 OLB to replace Ahmad Brooks
  • Middle linebackers who can cover

Safety certainly isn’t a concern, which is why Jimmie Ward can stick to playing nickel corner (where he did pretty well in 2015).

Is Tramaine Brock a No. 1 corner? Not exactly, and that’s why guys like Smith and Norman look tempting. But they’ve got some young, talented players who would probably do much better with an improved pass rush up front. Kenneth Acker barely had any experience, so his up-and-down year should be viewed as more of a success than a failure. Dontae Johnson has the physical tools to cover the league’s bigger receivers. Marcus Cromartie and Keith Reaser are decent backup options. Instead of building their defense from the backfield forward, they should work on improving the team’s front seven to give their current DBs some help.

If they 49ers have a plan, they should stick to it.

On one hand, if something great falls into their laps, they should pounce. If the Colts released Andrew Luck, no one would blame the 49ers if they offered him $25 million per year.

On the other, the 49ers seemed to be pretty resolute in their offseason plan. That plan appeared to be something along the lines of “draft and develop” and “don’t overpay for free agents, especially when the team is more than a player or two away from relevance.”

The apparent plan was a frustrating one for fans (especially season ticket holders) who got juiced by the team’s abundant cap space and comments made by a certain CEO on Jan. 4.

“We have a lot of opportunity in front of us. I don’t know exactly where we stack in cap room, but I think we’re top-five in the league in cap room today,” York said.

However, York also said this: “In terms of salary cap, just because you have room doesn’t mean that you have to spend the room. You can transfer that room over to this year. We’ve got a lot of salary cap room. So, you can’t just spend money to spend money.”

And it’s true. The 49ers, from what I’ve been told by someone with far greater cap expertise than I possess, can roll their current cap space over to next year, just as they did before the current offseason.

For a team that doesn’t have its franchise quarterback figured out, and has a new head coach installing a radically different offensive scheme, and struggled to put together a strong pass rush last season, what difference could Norman possibly make in 2016?

If the 49ers are truly interested in paying Norman what he wants, it would seem like a strange departure, as if they were waiting for an All-Pro corner to fall out of the sky before finally opening the checkbook. It sounds convenient, sure, but it also sounds more like a bone they’d be throwing to the fans than a winning strategy.

Or, as Matt Maiocco explains, the 49ers were probably just hoping Norman wouldn’t get the kind of interest he’s seeing today from Washington.

The source said the 49ers were likely hoping for a “soft market” for Norman. It is unlikely the 49ers will enter a bidding war that could make him the highest-paid player on the team, the source said. The 49ers “like the player,” but the source said Norman’s style might not be a perfect fit in the team’s defensive scheme.

There you have it. They aren’t going to detonate their current salary structure. Not for a guy who they like, but probably wouldn’t fit seamlessly into Jim O’Neil’s defense … whatever that defense will look like in four months or so.

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