The Panthers released veteran defensive end Charles Johnson, freeing up $11 million in cap space for 2016 but losing a defensive captain.
The team made the announcement Thursday morning, six days before the start of free agency.
“Charles was an impact player for the Carolina Panthers for a long time, both on and off the field,” general manager Dave Gettleman said in a statement. “His statistics speak for themselves, and as a team captain he led the way you want your leaders to lead – by example. I wish him the best moving forward.”
Spending all nine of his NFL years in Carolina, Johnson had 63 1/2 sacks, the second-most in team history behind Julius Peppers’ 81. His 17 forced fumbles were also second in team history.
But his 2015 season left much to be desired. He was on temporary injured reserve with a hamstring injury, and he had just one sack in nine games. He did record three sacks in Carolina’s three postseason games.
“Charles has had a very good career as a Carolina Panther and I’ve enjoyed coaching him the past five seasons,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in a statement. “Charles fought through adversity with his injury last season and set a great example for our locker room as a captain. I have a great deal of respect for Charles as a player and a person and thank him for all the contributions he has made to this team.”
Johnson signed a six-year, $76 million deal with Carolina in 2011. He was set to count $15 million against the 2016 salary cap. The move clears $11 million in cap space for the Panthers, though the Panthers will take on $4 million in dead money with the cut.
Johnson makes three veteran Panthers that Gettleman has parted ways with in as many offseasons. Gettleman cut receiver Steve Smith in the 2014 offseason, and last year he cut running back DeAngelo Williams.
Carolina’s defensive end rotation will look much different than it did in 2015. Johnson and Jared Allen, who retired last month, started in Super Bowl 50 at defensive end.
Former second-round pick Kony Ealy, entering his third season, is sure to start at one defensive end spot in 2016. Gettleman and defensive line coach Eric Washington spoke highly of Arthur Miley and Rakim Cox at last week’s NFL scouting combine, and the Panthers had former first-round pick Quinton Coples in the building earlier this week for a physical.
Carolina could add to the defensive end rotation in free agency next week, though a splash day-one signing isn’t expected. There’s also April’s draft where Carolina holds the No. 30 overall pick.
The Panthers could tab Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd or Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah if either is available.