Charles Johnson got 'Big Money' for sacks, but Panthers still have options

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charles Johnson's retirement news conference wouldn't have been complete on Thursday without recalling the day general manager Marty Hurney and other members of the Carolina Panthers flew to Miami to wrap up the deal that would earn the defensive end the nickname "Big Money."

It was a Monday in July 2011. Johnson was coming off a breakout season in which he had 11.5 sacks after the Panthers let star end Julius Peppers sign with the Chicago Bears.

Carolina didn't want to lose Johnson, too.

So Hurney, head coach Ron Rivera, then-defensive line coach Eric Washington and assistant coach Sam Mills Jr. hopped on a plane to meet with Johnson and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus.

At one point, as Johnson recalled on this day of going down memory lane, Hurney and Rosenhaus went off by themselves.

Let Johnson pick it up from there.

"Drew's calling my phone, calling my phone," Johnson recalled as he stood in front of a packed team meeting room reliving his 11-year career with the Panthers. "I answered and he was like, 'Charles, you're not going to believe this! The Panthers offered you such and such, such and such.' I was talking to Coach Washington and Sam. I damn near fell out of the chair. I was saying, 'Oooooh! Really?'

"But you don't know, man. That changed my life."

Johnson quickly earned the "Big Money" moniker after the Panthers gave him a six-year, $76 million deal with $32 million guaranteed.

He never really liked the nickname. He told ESPN.com in 2016 when he signed a one-year, $3 million deal a month after the Panthers cut him to save $11 million in salary-cap space that he was relieved not to have the stigma of the big contract hanging over him.

But Johnson made a lot of money with the Panthers. According to Spotrac, the $74,771,674 cash value of his contracts ranks third on the team's all-time list behind quarterback Cam Newton ($89,692,154) and Peppers ($79,828,000).

Though Johnson wants his legacy to be more about hard work and loyalty to the organization, the money allowed him to fulfill charity work in the Carolinas through his foundation. It allowed him to team with former NBA stars Kevin Garnett and Devean George to build several affordable housing projects.

It allowed him to start other adventures, including a new restaurant he hopes to open soon in Charlotte.

But the Panthers paid Johnson big money because of his ability to rush the quarterback. His 67.5 sacks rank second only to Peppers' 92 on the team's all-time list.

Johnson, 32, got a chance to pose for a picture with Peppers and Mike Rucker, third on the all-time list with 55.5 sacks, after his news conference in front of current and former teammates.

Peppers, whose 154.5 career sacks rank fourth in NFL history, is still going strong at 38 years old. He had 11 sacks last season to tie end Mario Addison for the team lead.

The Panthers finished third in the NFL behind Pittsburgh (56) and Jacksonville (55) with 50 sacks last season. They led the league with 60 in 2013, Johnson's last season in double digits (11.5).

Handicapping sack production

One of the reasons the Panthers in February released Johnson, who wasn't the same last year after back surgery, was they were comfortable with the sack production they were getting from other players.

They have the potential to be among the league sack leaders again. Setting the line at four sacks, here's my over-under prediction for key players for the 2018 season:

DE Julius Peppers: Over. He had fewer than four sacks only once in his 16 seasons -- in 2007 when he had 2.5. He's had seven or more the other 15 seasons, including 11 in 2017 to tie Addison for the team lead. With the defensive tackle position stouter than ever with the addition of Dontari Poe, Peppers' sack number should be in the seven to 10 range, at worst.

DE Mario Addison: Over. With apologies to Peppers, Addison is Carolina's best pass-rusher. He had 11 sacks a year ago and has 33 over the past four seasons. Don't be surprised if he reaches 12 to 14 this season.

DT Kawann Short: Over. He tied all defensive tackles for sacks in 2015 with 11 and has 24.4 sacks over the past three seasons. His production the past two seasons has dropped, but he still averaged 6.75 sacks during that span. With Poe lining up next to him, look for his numbers to climb to the 10 range again.

DT Dontari Poe: Over. He had six sacks in 2014 and 4.5 in 2013 with the Kansas City Chiefs. He hasn't played beside a tackle as good as Short, nor defensive ends as good as Peppers and Addison since. He has only five sacks the past three seasons combined, but look for him to reach that number this season as he resurrects his career.

LB Shaq Thompson: Under. He'll pick up the playing time of Thomas Davis, who is suspended for the first four games. But with three sacks in three seasons, it's still hard to see him top four in 2018.

LB Luke Kuechly: Under. Kuechly says his goal this season is to improve as a pass-rusher. He seldom falls short of goals, but topping four when he has only 10.5 sacks in six seasons and only 4.5 the past three seasons combined seems unrealistic. He's too valuable in coverage, anyway.

LB Thomas Davis: Under. Davis had more than four sacks only once in his career, in 2015 when he made the Pro Bowl for the first time with 5.5. He led Carolina linebackers last season with 2.5 sacks, but missing the first four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs will cut down drastically on his totals.

DT Kyle Love: Under. He's considered more of a space-eater than a pass-rusher, although he did put up a career-best 3.5 sacks last season. Topping four is a reach.

DT Vernon Butler: Under. He was drafted to be a pass-rusher, but as Short's backup he has only 1.5 sacks in two seasons. He had none last season, so don't look for him to make a huge leap.