Carolina Panthers

Could Panthers’ ‘forgotten guy’ be a key to defense in 2018? Ron Rivera wants to find out.

New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown, right, has spent part of his offseason at Myers Park High, where he’s served as a de facto assistant coach to Scott Chadwick. Above, Carolina Panthers defensive end Wes Horton, left, pressures McCown into losing the ball, which was recovered by Luke Kuechly and returned for a touchdown in last fall’s game in East Rutherford, N.J.
New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown, right, has spent part of his offseason at Myers Park High, where he’s served as a de facto assistant coach to Scott Chadwick. Above, Carolina Panthers defensive end Wes Horton, left, pressures McCown into losing the ball, which was recovered by Luke Kuechly and returned for a touchdown in last fall’s game in East Rutherford, N.J. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Carolina Panthers are thrilled to have veteran defensive end Julius Peppers back for another season. They’re also thrilled to have Mario Addison manning the opposite end.

But what happens behind them?

Peppers rotated with veteran Charles Johnson last season, playing almost exactly half of the defensive snaps in 2017. The expectations will be similar for him in 2018, so that his 38-year-old body may be preserved through 16-plus weeks. And now Johnson is gone.

For depth, Carolina has a decision to make. And in doing so, they might give a big opportunity to a guy who head coach Ron Rivera admitted Tuesday has been “forgotten,” Wes Horton.

“I think the problem is us. We get caught up on these (starters) and Wes is kind of the forgotten guy,” said Rivera. “We take him for granted. And we can’t take him for granted anymore, because he’s shown that he’s the type of guy who has that capability of making plays. He’s done some really good things for us and he’s saved us in a couple situations. The guy seems to make plays when he gets his opportunity. So we need to create more opportunity for him and find out.”

Horton, 28, is facing what might be his most critical year, the second of a two-year deal he signed last spring. He has played situationally in Carolina’s rotating pass-rush and at times moved inside. He especially showed a knack late last year for strip-sacking the quarterback and had his most productive season, with three forced fumbles and 5.5 sacks.

“I think Wes has proven to us what he can do. He just seems to make plays,” Rivera said. “We’ve got to pay more attention to Wes’ development. We get so caught up in the other guys that Wes sort of bounces from one side to the other. He’s shown that he can play the three-technique for us, which adds value to his position. Flexibility is really important.”

Horton has been in Carolina since 2013, and and the team has released him and brought him back a half-dozen times. His playing time has fluctuated behind Addison and Johnson. Can he fill the space Johnson left behind?

The Panthers are likely to draft an edge-rusher, especially with Peppers, 38, in a year-to-year situation. Rivera also wants to see more out of last year’s third-round pick, Daeshon Hall, after the team traded up to select him. Hall spent the majority of the 2017 season on injured reserve.

“We drafted him high for a reason,” Rivera said. “We saw that in him at Texas A&M and now we’re going to expect it from him on football field very shortly. First and foremost, we’ve got to get him on the field and keep him on the field. ... I think it’s time for him to grow.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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