An $8.5 million piece of the Panthers’ puzzle at defensive end played out Thursday when Jared Allen announced his retirement in epic, cowboy fashion.
The Panthers were not going to bring Allen and his non-guaranteed salary back, but his decision kept the front office from having to cut a future Hall-of-Famer who brought professionalism and a play-hurt mentality to the locker room during his four-plus months in Charlotte.
The conversations with veteran defensive end Charles Johnson figure to be a little tougher.
Johnson, 29, is entering the final year of the six-year, $76 million contract he signed in 2011. He’s due to make $10.75 million this year with a salary cap charge of $15 million – too rich for an aging player who finished with two sacks during an injury-plagued 2015.
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Team sources say Johnson will have to agree to restructure his contract and take less money or risk being cut, which would create $11 million in cap space for the Panthers.
Carolina could do a lot with the nearly $20 million in combined cap room created by shedding the Allen and Johnson contracts, beginning with a franchise tag for cornerback Josh Norman estimated to cost $13.7 million.
But general manager Dave Gettleman, true to his Giants roots, has an affinity for pass-rushers. And while the Panthers have a gifted interior rusher in Kawann Short (whose long-term future must be addressed) and an ascending edge rusher in Super Bowl 50 star Kony Ealy, they could stand another impact defensive end to harass the quarterback.
In its latest installment of the Panthers’ offseason priorities, the Observer looks at the Panthers’ returning defensive ends as well as those who might make sense for Carolina either through free agency or the draft.
Strengths: Johnson is a hard-working veteran who knows the Panthers’ system and sets the tone for the defensive line with how he approaches practices. Johnson, who will turn 30 in July, might have lost a step but can still beat offensive tackles on bull rushes, thanks to his motor. At 6-2, 282 pounds, he is big enough to hold up against the run and occasionally can create mismatches when he’s moved inside in passing situations.
Weaknesses: Injuries have slowed Johnson, particularly a hamstring issue that landed him on short-term injured reserve for eight weeks in 2015. But Johnson, second behind Julius Peppers on the team’s career sacks list, averaged 10.25 sacks in the first four seasons after signing his mega-deal. It’s reasonable to wonder whether Johnson can stay healthy enough to see another double-digit sack season.
What’s likely to happen: This is tough to call. Former players such as Jordan Gross have agreed to pay cuts to finish out their careers with the Panthers. But Johnson is a proud guy represented by an agent in Drew Rosenhaus who likely is telling Johnson he’ll get him a good contract elsewhere if the Panthers cut him. Stay tuned.
Strengths: Ealy has a great combination of size (6-4, 275) and speed. It appeared Ealy’s development had stalled in his second season when coaches committed to starting veterans Johnson and Jared Allen. Then the Super Bowl happened. Ealy’s three-sack, two-takeaway performance was a revelation as to what he could become.
Weaknesses: When general manager Dave Gettleman told Ron Rivera that Ealy had a little Josh Norman in him, it wasn’t necessarily intended as a compliment. Ealy’s stubborn streak didn’t win over the coaching staff his first two seasons. He has to continue maturing if he wants to be an every-down player who has the full trust of his teammates and the organization.
What’s likely to happen: It’s still mind-blowing to consider Ealy did so much damage in Super Bowl 50 despite playing 23 defensive snaps. He needs to be on the field 60 plays a game in 2016.
Strengths: Speed, speed and more speed. Watching Addison chase down Broncos punt returner Jordan Norwood to save a touchdown in the Super Bowl was a reminder of Addison’s tremendous heart and skill set.
Weaknesses: There’s a reason Addison runs like a linebacker. At 6-3 and 260 pounds, he’s too light to be more than a situational pass-rusher and special teams ace. But he excels at both.
What’s likely to happen: Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will continue to look to get Addison matched up against slow-footed offensive tackles and get to the quarterback.
Strengths: Horton is a big, sturdy player (6-5, 270) and one of the Panthers’ best defensive ends against the run.
Weaknesses: He’s a little limited in his pass-rush moves. Horton played a lot of snaps in 2014 when Greg Hardy was on the commissioner’s exempt list, and had a tendency to disappear at times in games.
What’s likely to happen: Horton will try to work his way back into the rotation after his 2015 season was waylaid by a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.
Strengths: He’s blessed with a long frame (6-4 and 265) and a quick first step. Delaire had a huge debut with two sacks vs. Jameis Winston in a Week 4 win at Tampa Bay. But Rivera was right when he cautioned fans about getting too excited about Delaire’s coming-out party, saying teams hadn’t seen tape of the former Washington practice squad player.
Weaknesses: After his big day in Tampa, Delaire managed just a half-sack over his final eight regular-season games and was inactive for four games. If Delaire can develop more of a repertoire of moves, he could stick.
What’s likely to happen: Delaire could be squeezed out if the Panthers draft a pass rusher or if one of their young defensive ends (see below) develops.
Frank Alexander: Restricted free agent suspended until November after his third strike in NFL drug-testing policy. Hard to imagine the Panthers re-signing him.
Rakim Cox: Athletic speed rusher spent last season on practice squad after impressive showing at training camp.
Arthur Miley: Like Cox, the 6-6, 265-pound had a strong camp before a knee injury landed him on IR.