One of the most productive players in Carolina Panthers’ franchise history, Charles Johnson signed a one-year deal this offseason worth $3 million a few days after the Panthers released him in a cap-clearing move.
His 63 1/2 sacks and 17 forced fumbles over nine years rank second in team history, and he’s likely to wear the captain’s patch again in the 2016 season.
He still knows this year will be a prove-it season.
“Of course,” Johnson told the Observer at June’s minicamp. “I’ve got to prove myself, right? I’m only signed to a one-year deal, so I got to go out and prove myself.”
Some of that desire to prove himself comes from the injured 2015 season. Johnson was placed on temporary injured reserve after the third game with an injured hamstring.
He missed seven games, then returned for the final six games of the regular season, during which he totaled zero quarterback sacks.
The injury came a crucial time for Johnson, who was set to cost $15 million against the 2016 salary cap in the final year of his original six-year deal worth $76 million.
The Panthers released Johnson in March to save more than $11 million in cap space.
“It’s a working hazard regardless,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to stay healthy, prove myself each and every day, and hopefully I come out on top.”
Johnson took visits to the Giants and Buccaneers, and he was offered a one-year deal worth $6 million by one of those teams, according to a league source. But Johnson, taking into account the proximity to his hometown in Georgia, his family and ability to win with the Panthers, took the $3 million offer from Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman.
If Johnson believes this is a prove-it year for himself, his coach does not.
“No, it’s not a prove-it year for him. I think he’s proven it,” Ron Rivera said in June. “The one thing that he’s always seemed to do for us is come up big at the end of the year in playoffs when we’ve needed him. That’s probably the biggest thing.”
Whatever struggles Johnson had in the regular season disappeared in the postseason. He got a sack in each of Carolina’s three playoff games and hit the quarterback an additional three times.
Soon to be 30, Johnson heard questions about how much he has left in the tank. All he could do was laugh.
“I mean, I find it crazy when guys are older than me and doing this and doing that,” Johnson said. “You get criticized about everything. I can accept that because of last year and how it happened. I can accept that, and I’m just going to work my (tail) off.”
Johnson looked solid during OTAs and minicamp in June. He worked as the first-team defensive end along with Kony Ealy, and there’s no real threat to his starting position going into training camp.
“I’ve seen a guy who seems to be having fun and enjoying himself,” Rivera said. “And I’m real pleased about that. He’s given great effort and he’s in great shape. He’s doing all the things that he needs to do.
“Our staff has got to be smart. He’s a veteran guy who’s important to what we do, and we’ve got to be aware of his conditioning and how he’s doing.”
Hamstring issues have plagued Johnson the past two training camps, and Carolina doesn’t want to see a third. In 2014 he played in just one exhibition, and last year he didn’t play in the preseason at all after missing most of camp with the same hamstring injury that would eventually sideline him in the regular season.
Asked about his goals for this season, Johnson first and immediately said staying healthy.
“It’s just about taking care of your body,” Johnson said, “and just doing the right things to make sure you’re setting yourself up for the long haul.”