Quarterback Cam Newton may be the face of the Carolina Panthers franchise.
But defensive end Charles Johnson remains the richest man in the Panthers locker room and the player most responsible for getting after the other teams quarterback.
Johnson signed a six-year, $76 million deal last July as the Panthers came out of the lockout with wallets open, flying to Miami to offer Johnson the most lucrative contract ever given to a Panther. The freshly minted Johnson had a good, not great season in 2011, finishing with nine sacks while battling a lower back injury the latter part of the season.
So it was interesting last week when, during a conversation with reporters, Panthers coach Ron Rivera publicly nudged Johnson while discussing how the first week of training camp had gone.
Charles Johnson is very consistent right now, but we need him to take it to another level, Rivera said. Hes doing the things we want him to do, but we want him to do more. Thats why we have him here.
Johnson said he was surprised by the message, but did not necessarily disagree with Rivera.
I guess he wants me to keep being consistent. I dont know, Johnson said. I guess he wanted me to pick my game up.
Johnson was one of the last players signing autographs at Bank of America following Saturdays FanFest. He said he hasnt spoken with Rivera about the comments.
We havent really talked about it. I guess some people need to be called out to perform, Johnson said. I never felt like that. But if he felt like that, thats toward him.
Johnsons best season came in 2010 after Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers left Charlotte for a six-year, $91 million deal with the Bears.
Johnson, in his first full season as a starter, collected 73 tackles and 11.5 sacks in 2010 for a team that finished 2-14 in John Foxs final season. With no other proven pass-rusher on their roster, the Panthers offered Johnson a contract that blew away his other suitors, including NFC South rival Atlanta.
But Johnsons production slipped last year when his tackles total fell to 39.
Of course I want to take my game to another level, Johnson said. Some people need to be called out to get picked up. Some people react differently. But its all good with me.
Unlike Peppers, who uses a combination of speed and strength to generate pressure, Johnson is more of a power rusher. At 6-2 and 285 pounds, Johnson is strong enough to hold up against the run and make plays.
But he prides himself as a disruptive pass-rusher: He expects to have double-digit sacks this season and have the best year of my career.
A career year could give Johnson a shot at his first Pro Bowl berth. But he said that is not his focus.
Thats all a part of the whole package. If you help the team out the best way you can, Im sure other goals come with it, Johnson said before ducking into the stadium tunnel. But Im trying to help the team out the best way I can.