Buffalo Bills cornerback Josh Norman used to be widely considered the best player at his position in the NFL.
When the NFL Network put together it's annual Top 100 Players ranking for 2016 -- a ranking that is voted on by NFL platers and has quickly gained credibility as an accurate list from year to year -- Josh Norman landed in the 11th overall spot.
Only two other defensive players -- J.J. Watt and Luke Kuechley -- ranked ahead of Norman. No other defensive back ranked ahead of him. And this was a year in which future Hall of Fame DB's littered the list, names like Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson, along with stars like Tyrann Mathieu, Kam Chancellor and Eric Berry.
Norman earned his almost-top-10 spot from a 2015 season in which he was All-Pro First Team for the Carolina Panthers. He had four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, plus two fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and 18 pass breakups.
Norman helped the Panthers make it to the Super Bowl that year, although they lost to the Denver Broncos.
It was a career year for Josh Norman. And it happened to coincide with him being eligible for a new contract with the Panthers. It was assumed that Carolina would take care of their star cornerback, but the team surprisingly let Josh Norman go. He signed a five-year, $75 million deal with the Washington Football Team, making him the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history.
And then he began a decline into what is now almost irrelevance.
Josh Norman wasn't bad in his first season with Washington. He still made the NFL's Top 100 player ranking; he just dropped from 11th to 59th. He had three interceptions and 19 pass breakups, similar numbers to his great season with the Panthers. Washington wasn't anything near a Super Bowl contender, but no one blames one defensive back for a team's win-loss record.
The 2017 season was another mediocre one for Norman's Washington team, and he missed a couple of games with a rib injury. In 2018, Washington was again not good, but Norman stayed healthy and he recorded three interceptions.
Then in 2019, things really fell apart for Josh Norman. He was benched during the season for poor performance, the former All-Pro demoted to a backup. Washington was 3-13, and going nowhere, they released the expensive cornerback after the season.
This season, Norman joined the Buffalo Bills on a one-year contract. A "prove-it" deal to show if he can still be the star cornerback he was in Carolina, or if he was just another guy who wasn't even good enough to start for the losing Washington franchise.
A hamstring injury has limited Norman to just three games with the Buffalo Bills. In that limited action, he does have two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble, but this season Josh Norman's most memorable moment was when he got stiff-armed into oblivion by Tennessee Titan running back Derrick Henry in one of the most replayed clips of the season.
Can Josh Norman bounce back with the Buffalo Bills?
So what happened to Josh Norman?
How did the best cornerback in the NFL five years ago, one of the best defenders in the entire league, become an almost forgotten commodity?
One theory is that Norman simply got older. He's 32 years old now. It wouldn't be the first time that a good cornerback experienced a sharp decline with age that left him struggling against younger, faster receivers.
Another theory is that when Josh Norman played for the Panthers, the team ran a zone-based defense that was friendly to Norman's particular skills and abilities. When he went to Washington, they played a different system that forced Norman into more man-to-man coverage and allowed him to get exposed.
In other words, many believe Josh Norman was the equivalent of a "system player" in basketball. Or that Norman really was what some people falsely thought Tom Brady was; a player who looked great when the right coach and system worked out perfectly for him, but who couldn't thrive in any different situation.
If that was true, then the move to the Buffalo Bills should've been the best move for Norman to make. The Bills head coach, Sean McDermott, was the Panthers' defensive coordinator while Norman was there. So McDermott would know exactly which defensive system worked best for Norman and could put him in the best position to succeed.
That could've happened, but Norman hasn't been healthy. He's been ruled out again for this Sunday's Week 9 matchup between the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks.
When he can return to the field, it'll become clear whether Josh Norman has a chance to rediscover the form that made him a Pro Bowler, or at least a player who was good enough to make headlines for plays other than getting stiff-armed.