While the Carolina Panthers' front office remains adamant that they expect Julius Peppers to be back with the team in time for training camp, they are going through summer school as if he's already gone for good.
Weary that putting all of your eggs in one basket can spell doom in the NFL, the Panthers have conducted their offseason workouts the way they would if Peppers had his way and was spending the summer months getting used to a new city.
The understandably glaring question facing the Panthers this offseason is this: Who will replace Peppers when he is gone? So far, it looks like it will be third-year man Charles Johnson, a 6'2", 275-pound pass rusher from Georgia.
Johnson has spent most of the Panthers' summer school sessions working with the first team in Peppers' currently vacant right defensive end position.
All signs currently point to Johnson having continued his rapid improvement since entering the league in the Panthers 2007 draft class, which includes Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason, starting center Ryan Kalil, and the much-maligned but ever-promising Dwayne Jarrett.
Johnson was inactive for the majority of the 2007 season, only cracking the game-day lineup when injuries made it a necessity late in the year. His role was specifically that of a pass rusher on passing downs.
After Mike Rucker retired at the end of the '07 season, Johnson moved up into the role of the Panthers' third defensive end behind the newly acquired Tyler Brayton.
Johnson's improvement between 2007 and 2008 was evident, as he recorded 30 total tackles and 19 quarterback hurries in his reserve role. More impressive were his six sacks—good for second on the team behind Peppers. His knack for reaching the quarterback and either stopping or changing the play cannot be overlooked as the Panthers face the possibility of life without Peppers.
Johnson's athletic frame and relatively small stature for a defensive end fit perfectly into new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks' system. When you think about the Indianapolis Colts defense, two of the first names that come to mind are Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis—a pair of undersized defensive ends whom Meeks made into Pro Bowlers.
Word from the Panthers' recent summer school sessions is that Johnson has added some bulk and improved his conditioning, which will do nothing but help him in his quest to become a starting defensive end.
For now, Johnson is doing his best to soak up the experience gained by practicing with the first team, and he remains open-minded about the upcoming season.
“I’m a team player, I want Julius here,” Johnson told the media Wednesday. “I’m just trying to go out here and get better...You never know what’s going to happen.”
While those are mighty laid back words from perhaps one of the best kept secrets in the NFL, Jon Beason feels as if this may be Johnson's breakout season.
“Charles is a guy who’s really maturing,” Beason said. “With this defense it’s going to allow him to play fast and free...I look for him to be a household name this year.”
Peppers or no Peppers, look for Johnson to continue his improvement and contribute at the highest level for the Panthers.