DE Johnson a rare bright spot for Panthers
The Carolina Panthers have sunk to the bottom of the NFL standings thanks to a combination of crippling injuries and inexperienced players coming up small.
Yet one of the biggest questions entering the season - replacing five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers - has become the least of their worries.
Take a check of contract numbers and you'll see his replacement, Charles Johnson, making about $1.1 million in the last year of his rookie deal and Peppers at the start of a $91.5 million bonanza with Chicago. Check the NFL's sack leaders and you'll see Johnson tied for 14th with 8 1/2 sacks and Peppers tied for 20th with eight.
Now in his fourth season and finally getting a chance to start, the 24-year-old Johnson has come on strong with sacks in each of the last four games.
''He's got a lot more opportunity to play and he's taken full advantage of that,'' coach John Fox said Wednesday. ''I think he's had an outstanding season, which I think gets lost when you don't win the number of games that you'd like to.''
As the Panthers (1-12) wallow in a seven-game losing streak in a lost season blamed mostly on an anemic offense, Johnson is playing the best football of what had been a nondescript career coming into 2010. He will get a chance to increase his sack total Sunday against 4-9 Arizona.
''I'm just in the mindset where I'm trying to make plays,'' Johnson said. ''I'm in a starting role and I've never been in a starting role before so I'm just trying to make the most of it and trying to make as many plays as I can.''
A third-round from Georgia in 2007, the Hawkinsville, Ga., native spent most of his rookie season on the inactive list as he tried to add weight and get stronger. He played in all 16 games a year later as a reserve and had six sacks, but those numbers fell to four sacks in 28 tackles last season as he again failed to crack the starting lineup.
But when Peppers left, Johnson knew it was his chance. Linebacker Thomas Davis said Johnson was one of the hardest workers in the weight room in the offseason. Defensive line coach Brian Baker said in training camp of Johnson that, ''rather than slumping back in the meeting, he's on the edge of his seat now, ready to answer questions. He's a different guy.''
Despite being slowed in training camp with a hamstring injury, Johnson won Peppers' old starting job ahead of Everette Brown. With a better understanding of blocking schemes and perfecting his moves, he leads all of Carolina's defensive linemen with 64 tackles and 24 quarterback hurries.
It was also Johnson's hit that knocked San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith out of the game on Oct. 24, leading to ex-Panther David Carr's appearance. If it weren't for Carr's poor play and crucial late interception, the Panthers might be winless.
Johnson's late-season charge is coming at a good time, too, as he prepares to become a free agent.
''I think every game you have to play for your resume,'' Johnson said. ''You never know what is going to happen next year and all. I have to play my tail off and see what happens next year.''
Depending on what happens with the collective bargaining agreement, Johnson could be a restricted or unrestricted free agent. Despite Carolina's woes and uncertain coaching situation, Johnson wants to remain in Charlotte.
''I probably won't hear from them for a while,'' Johnson said on potential contract negotiations. ''It's good though. I love the Panthers. I want to stay.''
Notes: CB Chris Gamble (hamstring) returned to practice Wednesday after missing two games and Fox said he would ''more than likely'' get his starting job back Sunday against Arizona. Gamble was demoted to nickel back in the last game he played, Nov. 28 against Cleveland. ... QB Matt Moore was in the locker room after practice as he continues his rehabilitation from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Moore, who won't be able to throw until March, said his ''No. 1 goal'' is to re-sign with Carolina. ''If they ask me, and if it's up to me, I'd be here,'' Moore said. ... WR Armanti Edwards (illness) missed practice. ... LBs James Anderson and Jordan Senn and S Marcus Hudson were all limited with ankle injuries along with DE Greg Hardy (knee). ... LB Nic Harris (head) returned to practice after sitting out Sunday's loss. ... The Panthers remained a player short on the 53-man roster, with a move likely coming later this week. ... Carolina signed LB Thomas Williams to the practice squad.