Entering the new season, questions about the Carolina Panthers defense were many. Most of them centered around the injuries sustained by key players last year and if they could rebound in 2012. A lot of the Panthers' success in the upcoming year will rely on how strong and disruptive their pass-rushers are, and it begins with their defensive ends.
When Julius Peppers left Carolina following the 2009 season, the question facing the Panthers was how they were going to replace him and continue to maintain an effective pass rush. The answer was on their roster the entire time.
A defensive end out of Georgia, Charles Johnson, was selected in the third round of the 2007 NFL draft. Johnson possessed the pass-rushing capabilities the Panthers felt would allow them to put together a solid defensive line and be able to get to the quarterback. Johnson impressed in his time as a rotational player so much that the coaching staff felt comfortable giving him a shot at starting in 2010.
Johnson did not disappoint as he recorded 11.5 sacks in 2010 becoming only the fifth player in franchise history to record over 10 sacks in a season. It was during this same season that Carolina started giving some hard looks to another defensive end on their roster—Greg Hardy.
Hardy, a defensive product out of Mississippi, was selected in the 2010 draft during the sixth round.
Much like Johnson, he found himself starting out as a rotational player, but he made his presence felt when he was on the field. Through 15 games in the 2010 season, Hardy amassed 30 tackles (24 solo and six assisted) and three sacks. While those numbers were not impressive by themselves, they said a lot about a player who would fill in on a part-time basis.
The following year, the Panthers had both Johnson and Hardy starting on the defensive line, but neither one of them stood out. Johnson was met with many double-teams and saw his numbers in tackles and sacks decline (50 and nine).
Hardy bumped up his stats slightly but not nearly enough for a full-time starter. He matched Johnson in tackles, but he only reached the quarterback four times. Needless to say, both men underperformed, and the massive string of injuries did not help their cause.
Entering this season, the duo of Johnson and Hardy once again look to establish themselves as dangerous pass-rushing ends. Hardy entered training camp weighing in at 295 pounds and looks to be stronger. Johnson has continued to work hard and condition himself to help defeat double-teams, and hopefully, a healthy interior allows him to break free on a few plays.
Both men seem to be focused and committed to doing the right thing. Both have earned themselves their own unique moniker—Johnson “Big Money” and Hardy “The Kraken.” Both are favorites among the fanbase.
They have the potential to give Carolina one of the better sets of defensive ends in the league. The Panthers of the early 2000s had the tandem of Peppers and Mike Rucker who, in 2002, racked up over 10 sacks each. It's not out of the question for Johnson and Hardy to be just as effective.
The Panthers know Johnson is very capable of achieving 10 sacks in a season as evidenced by his 2010 campaign. Hardy needs to improve on beating his man at the line and maintain the same attitude which helped him be a great situational player a couple years ago. There's no denying the heart and desire of these defensive juggernauts to succeed.
Johnson and Hardy could each have a breakout season, and perhaps, a Pro Bowl appearance at the end of this year. While such accolades are nice to have, there's no doubt these two want to help lead Carolina to a division title, and hopefully, a league championship.
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