Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson's large 2016 salary-cap figure seems to have forced the team to move on, as Max Henson of the team's official site reported the Panthers released him on Thursday.
Johnson would have been a cap hit of $15.02 million, and the Panthers stand to save $11 million overall by cutting him loose, per Spotrac. Unless he comes back on a considerable pay cut, Johnson appears to be on course to change teams for the first time in his NFL career.
“Charles was an impact player for the Carolina Panthers for a long time, both on and off the field," Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said, per Black and Blue Review after the announcement.
"Charles has had a very good career as a Carolina Panther, and I've enjoyed coaching him the past five seasons," head coach Ron Rivera added in a team release. "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."
The 29-year-old had an injury-plagued 2015 campaign in which he played nine games and produced only one sack. Between the limited production, a contract year and nine years of wear and tear, it comes as little surprise the team let Johnson go.
Even if Johnson were to return to the fold, Gettleman figures to prioritize Johnson's long-term replacement through the 2016 NFL draft.
With Jared Allen retiring this offseason and Kony Ealy presumably filling a starting spot, the Panthers need depth in terms of pass-rushers. Interior dynamo Kawann Short isn't going anywhere, but Carolina has a definite need in terms of players on the edge.
Short had 11 sacks last season and took some stats away from others as a result, but Johnson clearly wasn't his usual self even as the Panthers posted a 15-1 regular-season record and made it to Super Bowl 50.
For anyone who's interested in Johnson on the open market, the hope is he can return to the form that allowed him to rack up 52.5 sacks from 2010 through 2014.
If he can prove he's healthy and at least approach double digits in sacks next season, Johnson would likely set himself up for a nice payday after the likely shorter, prove-it deal he's bound to get in free agency.
Although it has to hurt parting ways with a longtime franchise cornerstone, this move allows Carolina better cap flexibility as Gettleman tries to upgrade the roster in anticipation of another deep playoff run.