2011 Free Agent Profile: DE – Charles Johnson – Panthers

Charles JohnsonThis is the first installment in a series I will do highlighting the top potential free agents that Gene Smith and the Jaguars could target and sign whenever free agency is opened.

The all-time franchise record for sacks in a single season for the Jaguars was set in 1999 by Tony Brackens when he tallied 12 sacks over the course of a 14-2 season. Last year the leader in sacks for the Jaguars was Jeremy Mincey who finished the season with five sacks, starting in eight games.

Carolina’s fourth year defensive end Charles Johnson quietly racked up 11.5 sacks for his team that only won two games. If there was one area of the Panthers that looked bright, it was their pass defense that allowed the sixth fewest amount of touchdown passes in the NFL. Johnson was certainly a large factor in that for the Panthers.

A 3rd round selection (83rd overall) in the 2007 draft, Johnson was thought to be slightly undersized for a 4-3 defensive end and probably a better fit as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. He was also believed to be an “inexperienced” player by most accounts, but one with plenty of upside and potential for success due to his supreme athletic ability.

That inexperience made for a slow transition for Johnson as he was inactive in 13 of the first 16 games in his rookie season. He finally made his way on to the field for the last three games of the year, the last two of which he started. In none of these three games did he have much impact, though and he was unable to tally a sack although he did have a few quarterback pressures and two tackles.

Johnson played in 29 games over the next two seasons, but only started in three games with Julius Peppers and Tyler Brayton in firm control of their starting positions. However, as a rotational player Johnson found success, recording six sacks in 2008 and four more in 2009. With the departure of Peppers to Chicago, Johnson finally earned himself a spot in the starting defensive lineup for the Panthers.

He made the most of the opportunity starting in all 16 games for the Panthers and tallying 11.5 sacks including a six game span between weeks 11 and 16 where he recorded at least one sack in each game and finished with eight sacks through the six games. Despite his lack of ideal 4-3 size, Johnson has proven to be a ferocious pass rusher, often fighting off double teams as one of the few threats that concerned Panthers opponents.

Despite his success in 2010 the Panthers did not resign Johnson nor did they opt to use their franchise tag to ensure that he would stay in Carolina. They instead used a restricted free agent tender to ensure that would give the team the option of matching another team’s offer or reaping the benefit of allowing him to be signed by another team by receiving a draft pick in return.

However, prior to this offseason the cut off between a restricted free agent and an unrestricted one was three years and during any other year, Johnson would’ve been an unrestricted free agent and not considered eligible for an RFA tender. If the rules remain like that for 2011 free agency, Johnson’s tender will be ruled as invalid and he will be placed in the unrestricted free agent pool.

While Johnson has said that he hopes to stay with the Panthers and the team has reportedly made re-signing Johnson a top priority, if given the opportunity to test the free agent waters, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him do so. The Jaguars could certainly use a full time starter at defensive end and Johnson’s impact on their pass rush would likely come right away.

As an added bonus, Johnson is only 24 (he’ll turn 25 in July) and has plenty of football ahead of him. If Johnson reaches undrafted free agency he would provide a rare opportunity to infuse a young, talented player to the starting lineup through free agency and possibly even address the position from a long-term perspective.