The state of the Carolina Panthers’ secondary is such that a nickel back seven months removed from Achilles surgery is being viewed as a possible savior.
That explained the media contingent around Leonard Johnson on Tuesday, the first day the former Tampa Bay defensive back has practiced since signing with Carolina in July.
But reporters aren’t the only ones interested to see if Johnson can breathe life into a 1-5 team that limped into the bye week on a four-game losing streak.
So are his teammates and coaches.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“Greg Olsen said the same thing: ‘Leonard, you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to spark the team,’” Johnson said while walking off the practice field. “And I’m just like, ‘Oh, (expletive). Everybody’s saying I’ve got to do it.’
“So I’m just going to come and play my game and hopefully that’s good enough to give the team and the organization a spark.”
Johnson has been a bit of a mystery since joining the Panthers. He signed with the team in mid-July while most players and coaches were still on vacation.
And from the first day of training camp he’s been off to the side with the training staff rehabbing his Achilles – while wearing a pair of Panthers game pants each day.
No one, including head coach Ron Rivera, asked him about the pants. Until Tuesday.
“These are game pants. Every day I wanted to come to work and every time I put these pants on it’s just a glimpse of me stepping into a game-like situation,” Johnson said. “So I want to have the same mentality practice and game the same. So I wear the game pants every day.”
It remains to be seen whether Johnson will get a game jersey for the Oct. 30 game against Arizona, following this weekend’s bye.
This week was the first time Johnson could practice after starting the season on the non-football injury list. The Panthers have another two weeks to decide whether to add him to the active roster.
A positive step
Rivera said coaches want to evaluate Johnson next week before making a decision. But Tuesday was a step in the right direction.
“It’s good to see Leonard. He looked kind of (like) what we thought,” Rivera said. “We did some things that play to his strength and he handled them very well. We’ll get a chance to watch it even more so on tape and we think he can help us as well.”
Johnson (5-10, 200) spent three seasons with the Buccaneers after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Iowa State in 2012. He played in 48 games and made 17 starts for Tampa Bay, coming up with five interceptions and 20 pass breakups.
Johnson spent most of last season on injured reserve with an ankle issue before the Bucs waived him. He finished the season with New England and started three of the Patriots’ final four regular-season games as an extra defensive back.
Johnson was inactive for both of the Patriots’ playoff games and was cut in February. A month later he was on an operating table in Charlotte, having his Achilles repaired by Robert Anderson, a renowned foot and ankle specialist.
Johnson told his mother after the surgery it’d be cool if he could stay in Charlotte and play for Carolina. A few months later the Panthers called.
“I feel like I’m home. ... I was pretty much homeless after the surgery. And I got the call,” Johnson said. “So I’m just grateful.”
Search for stability
The Panthers are looking for stability at the cornerback position following the departures of Josh Norman and Bené Benwikere and injuries to second-round pick James Bradberry (turf toe) and veteran Robert McClain (hamstring).
McClain has been the primary nickel before outside linebacker Shaq Thompson filled in for him last week at New Orleans. Thompson trailed in coverage for much of the game.
Many players – including former Panthers linebacker Jon Beason – needed more than a year following Achilles surgery to regain their strength and explosion. But Johnson says he’s full-go.
“I don’t play timid, I don’t play scared in regards to the Achilles,” he said. “I’ve got the best foot and ankle specialist in the world. The doctor told me he doesn’t know how I’ve been playing with that for the last four years. So if I did it those last four years, I can do it another with the problem being fixed. It feels amazing, man.”
Linebacker Thomas Davis, who came back from three ACL surgeries, said he respects the work Johnson put in during rehab. Davis thinks Johnson can help the defense.
No one’s expecting Johnson to save this sinking season. But adding a player with energy and enthusiasm can’t hurt.
“I can bring a spark,” Johnson said. “I think we’re just one play away from turning this whole thing around. Collectively, we’re doing a great job right now. We’ve just got to put together some fine pieces and all the pieces of the puzzle will come together.”