Scott Fowler

With 6.5 sacks in 5 games, Panthers edge rusher Mario Addison deserves to be noticed

It’s past time for Mario Addison to be recognized throughout the NFL for how good he really is.

Addison, the Carolina Panthers’ best and most consistent pass rusher for the past three seasons, has now also become one of the best and most consistent pass rushers in the league.

At age 32, the guy with the big personality and the James Harden beard has 6 1/2 sacks through five games. That ranks him third in the NFL and could be the beginning of a career year. It’s also good timing, as Addison is in the last year of a three-year, $22.5-million contract with Carolina and is playing for a new one.

His first Pro Bowl appearance could come next, although Addison has his doubts about that.

Said Addison after making a key strip-sack in Carolina’s 34-27 win over Jacksonville Sunday: “The Pro Bowl would be good, but sometimes the Pro Bowl is rigged up — it’s all about popularity … I don’t care about being popular. I’ve been under the radar my whole career.”

That he has been. Undrafted out of Troy, Addison was hired and fired by three teams before finally sticking with the Panthers in 2012. His ascension has been steady. Only Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett — who, also undrafted, has 9 sacks, including three in his first meeting with Carolina — boasts more quarterback takedowns than Addison in 2019.

Addison’s sack Sunday was representative of how he has improved. Known mostly for being a speedy edge rusher (Cam Newton once nicknamed him “Super Mario” and called him an “edge nightmare”), Addison is strong enough to win inside when the Panthers move him around.

Lined up as a stand-up defensive tackle early in Sunday’s game, Addison found himself facing Andrew Norwell. The two have a long history, as Norwell was a Panther starter before Jacksonville made him the NFL’s highest-paid offensive guard in 2018.

Instead of trying to slip around him, Addison went through him.

“I stabbed him (with his hands), got his hands off of me, and I ran him back to the quarterback,” Addison said.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Brian Burns (53) picks up a Jacksonville Jaguars fumble caused by teammate Mario Addison and returns it for a 56-yard touchdown Sunday. David T. Foster III

Norwell, who at 325 outweighs Addison by 65 pounds, looked like he was on roller skates. He never could get anchored again. Addison threw him into Jacksonville quarterback Gardner Minshew, and the impact knocked the ball loose. Panthers rookie defensive end Brian Burns was the lucky beneficiary, scooping the ball up on one bounce and running 56 yards for a touchdown.

When asked about Burns’ run, Addison smiled. “I saw a a guy who was very hungry,” Addison said. “And when he touched that ball — man, he ran like it was a stuffed turkey.”

Those are the kinds of things that Addison says. He’s a creative interview subject. When asked if the sack Sunday meant more because it came against Norwell, Addison boomed: “Hell yeah! You know it, man. I’ll take that one sack vs. two or three, as long as it’s against Norwell.”

When he spoke about chasing Minshew around, Addison said: “I was running out there one time, I see his mustache fall off and it went that way. I slowed down and went for the mustache. He kept running away so I had to redirect and go get him. He’s slippery, man.”

What can’t happen for Addison this season is the sack drop-off he experienced in 2018. By the midpoint of 2018, Addison had 7 1/2 sacks and seemed well on the way to surpassing his career high (11 sacks, in 2017).

Carolina Panthers linebacker Mario Addison (97) sacks Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) during a win in September. Addison has 6.5 sacks in Carolina’s first five games, good for second in the NFL. David T. Foster III

But Addison had only 1 1/2 sacks in the Carolina’s final eight games. His decline paralleled the Panthers’, who went 1-7 over the second half of the season to miss the playoffs.

Now the Panther called “Rio” by his teammates is off to another strong start. He may have a slight advantage coming this weekend, too, having been to London to see the Tottenham Hotspur stadium where Carolina will play Tampa Bay on Sunday (9:30 a.m. kickoff). Addison served as an NFL ambassador during that summertime trip.

“It’s amazing,” Addison said. “It’s a next-level field. People are going to love it.”

People love Addison, too — at least the ones in his own locker room.

“He’s just winning one-on-one,” Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington said, adding that he believes Addison is actually getting better at age 32.

“Mario is the guy who always performs for us, even though he’s been under the radar for years,” Panthers safety Tre Boston said.

That may be changing, though. If Addison can avoid his second-half doldrums from a year ago, a Pro Bowl and another big contract are about to be in his immediate future.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.