The 49ers have relied on veteran corner Josh Norman as an emergency veteran add, but his recent struggles suggest there are better options available.
Too bad five or six years ago isn’t 2021.
Look, it makes sense why the Niners onboarded the 33-year-old Norman in early September. The team was already questionable at the position entering the regular season. Rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas, San Francisco’s third-round NFL Draft pick, struggled throughout training camp and the preseason. And with fellow corner Emmanuel Moseley banged up to start the year, there also weren’t too many other likable options on the roster either.
And Norman’s addition even made more sense once the 49ers lost their No. 1 cornerback, Jason Verrett, to a season-ending ACL tear in Week 1.
That said, and despite the Niners continuing to suffer injury attrition at the position, Norman is proving to be more adept as a depth option rather than a reliable starter. And even though it’s admirable he worked his way back from a serious chest injury suffered in Week 3, Norman’s on-field play has still left a lot to be desired.
Josh Norman has been 49ers’ worst starting cornerback in 2021
Thomas’ struggles aside, and those are a concern for another time, Norman has been looked at as San Francisco’s biggest liability within the secondary.
According to Pro Football Focus, which has given him a lowly 47.9 overall grade over three starts — the lowest out of any starter in the defensive backfield, Norman has already surrendered five catches on nine targets for 47 yards and two touchdowns. Even worse, Norman has already been flagged for a penalty four times this season, one of which was declined anyway, and his poorish showing in the 17-10 Week 5 defeat at the hands of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and the Arizona Cardinals was another prime showing why Norman has been suspect.
True, Norman has always been a handsy player. And at this stage of his career, it’s not going to be any less a tactic against younger, faster wide receivers.
But when the 49ers’ margin for error is now razor-thin, it’s probably best to explore contingency options.
49ers should roll with Deommodore Lenoir, not Josh Norman
It’s always risky going with a rookie in a starting role, particularly with the understanding he’ll be targeted a lot.
And while Thomas’ struggles have been frustrating, they’ve been offset to a point thanks to the emergence of fifth-round rookie Deommodore Lenoir, who has been relegated to backup status after starting the Niners’ first two games of the season on the boundary.
Lenoir getting benched corresponded with Moseley’s return from a preseason knee injury and Norman’s activation after being added to the 53-man roster. And while Lenoir’s 58.7 overall PFF grade doesn’t suggest a star in the making, he has shown to be a lot more reliable in coverage than Norman up to this point.
Plus, if San Francisco is more interested in building towards its long-term future, it makes more than enough sense to let Lenoir take his lumps in a maturation process rather than hope for anything out of Norman.
Maybe the only way Norman agreed to sign with the 49ers was if he was guaranteed a starter’s job. If that’s the case, the one-year deal costs just $200,000 in dead money, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing if the Niners front office elected to pursue the youth movement at the expense of Norman’s roster spot.
Either way, the veteran isn’t exactly showing he can be the answer to the team’s issues within the secondary.