Over the next few weeks, we’re going to profile some of the Lions’ top potential targets in free agency. Today we’re going to start with one of the most popular free agents out there: Panthers guard Andrew Norwell.
2014 (undrafted): 10 games (9 starts)
2015: 13 games (13 starts)
2016: 16 games (16 starts)
2017: 16 games (16 starts)
2017: 88.3 (third among guards); 83.4 run blocking (eighth), 90.9 pass blocking (first)
A five-star Scout recruit out of high school, Norwell went on to have a solid career at Ohio State. Splitting time at left tackle and left guard, he earned first-team All-Big Ten twice during his four-year career in Columbus. However, Norwell went undrafted in 2014. Due to his unrefined technique and underwhelming athleticism, he was projected to go on the final day of the draft, but didn’t hear his name called.
The Panthers ended up taking him in free agency and almost immediately found a job for him. After suffering from some pretty serious offensive line problems, Carolina inserted Norwell into the lineup just six weeks into the season. He immediately upgraded the line, and finished the season with the fourth-highest PFF grade among guards in the final six games of the season.
It only got better from there. As it became clearer he was the team’s long-term starter at left guard, Norwell’s play only improved as his techniques smoothed out. Last year, as a restricted free agent, the Panthers showed Norwell just how valuable he was by placing a second-round tender on the guard. Norwell responded to the gesture by giving the Panthers his first All-Pro season of his career.
So why aren’t the Panthers showing the same commitment to Norwell this offseason? Very simply: money. Carolina has been lucky to have Norwell on a contract of an undrafted free agent for three years. Even when they gave him a second-round tender last year, they only had to pay him $2.746 million for a season—36th among NFL guards.
Now the Panthers don’t have the cap space to warrant giving Norwell the contract he deserves. They rank 26th in cap space, with just over $17 million.
Why the Lions should sign him
Um... he’s good.
#Panthers OG Andrew Norwell now enters free agency off the back of a career year in which he was one of the best in the game.— Mike Jurecki (@mikejurecki) February 12, 2018
He didn’t allow a sack or a hit all season, while surrendering just 15 total pressures across 1,140 snaps and 17 games including the playoffs. @PFF
His 83.4 run-blocking grade was eighth best among guards, and that wasn’t even his career high in that regard. He graded out better as a run blocker each of the last two years with an 84.1 run-blocking grade in 2016 and 87.6 in 2015.
Not only is Norwell talented at both running blocking and pass protection, but he can do it in any system. At Carolina, Norwell developed into the full package at guard, and there’s really nothing he needs to prove anymore. The Panthers don’t exactly stick to just zone or power blocking schemes, so Norwell’s skill-set should be a match for really any suitors out there.
He fits a big need
While the Lions could still theoretically bring back Travis Swanson to play center, keeping Graham Glasgow at left guard, there doesn’t seem to be any good rationale to do so. Instead, the Lions are very likely to move Glasgow to center, leaving a big hole at left guard. The closest thing they have to a starter at that position is 2016 fifth-round pick Joe Dahl, who has struggled in his three career starts.
Over the past few years, the Lions have been one of the worst teams at protecting Matthew Stafford and running the ball. Norwell would immediately chip away at two of the team’s biggest weaknesses.
Why the Lions should pass
It’s impossible to make a talent argument against Norwell, leaving money as the only deterrent to signing Norwell. He will clearly be the best guard on the market, and with a whole bunch of teams looking to upgrade their offensive line, Norwell will be a hot commodity.
So how much will it cost to bring Norwell to Detroit? Let’s look at some recent contracts for reference.
2017 top free agent guard contracts:
Kevin Zeitler: Five years, $60 million ($12 million/year)
Gabe Jackson: Five years, $55 million ($11 million/year)
Joel Bitonio: Six years, $51 million ($8.5 million/year)
Norwell graded out better than all three of these guards in 2017, and with the salary cap projected to go up around $10 million this season, it seems pretty safe to say that Norwell will get at least $12 million a year in free agency. Or to put more bluntly, Norwell is almost certainly about to become the highest-paid guard in NFL history.
The Lions have enough money to make it happen, with over $44 million in cap space, but the question is should they?
Last offseason, the Lions pulled out their checkbook to sign both Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang to huge free agent deals, but with the rest of their starting offensive line on rookie deals, they still only ranked 20th in spending on the offensive line in 2017.
They currently still rank 20th, but if they were to add Norwell, they would likely jump into the top 10. Obviously, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that—in fact, some would argue that offensive line is the type of position a team should be spending top dollar on, but considering they’re also spending a ton of money at quarterback and wide receiver, Detroit isn’t exactly balancing their budget between offense and defense. In fact, at the moment, the Lions rank dead last in cap space dedicated to the defense.
So should the Lions empty the linings of their pockets for yet another offensive linemen? Well, in terms of free agency, there’s rarely a player that is as much of a sure thing as Norwell. It seems like sweet, sweet destiny that he hits free agency just as the Lions’ left guard position magically becomes vacated.
While there’s always a sense of anxiety when a team goes out and spends a lot on a free agent target, I think the Lions would be completely justified in handing Norwell an exorbitant contract. Their cap commitment to the offensive line, though ranking in the top 10, would not be outrageous.
The identity of this team is Matthew Stafford. For years, the Lions have tried to make him as comfortable as possible in the pocket. For years, they have failed. Detroit should have a top-five defense with the way Stafford is playing, but they don’t. And the offensive line failures have been devastating to this team’s competitiveness for far too long.
This season, the Lions have shown a commitment to fixing the offensive line by getting themselves a new, well-regarded offensive line coach. They should go the whole nine yards and make an aggressive play for Norwell to finish the job.
Should the Lions sign Andrew Norwell to a five-year, $12/13 million/year contract?
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