It may seem odd, but one of the most underrated players in the league right now is a guy who everyone pretty much rates. They think, new CBA permitting, he’ll be in line for a big deal, and he’s coming off a great year.
But after watching Charles Johnson dominate right tackles for most of the year – and after watching him impress in both 2008 and 2009 when he was a rotational player – I can’t help but think he’s better than people are saying. That he may just be one of the best defensive ends in the league.
That may be a rash statement after just one year as a starter, but the talent has always been evident. It’s just the body of work is coming along now too, but don’t take my word for it, let’s break down the last three years (especially 2010) of Charles Johnson and see what makes the Panther so good.
Stats: 7 sacks, four hits and 29 hurries. 21 defensive stops
Grade: +5.6 (+13.9 for pass rushing – overall grade held down by eight penalties)
We aren’t really in a position to comment on his rookie year since at that point, we hadn’t yet hit our stride. So, 2008 was our first chance at breaking down the former Georgia Bulldog. In short, we were wowed by what Johnson was able to do, and shocked the Panthers didn’t find a way to get this pass rushing menace on the field more.
His 2008 season was so good that it earned him the eighth highest grade for a defensive end in pass rushing on the year. Sure, his run defense wasn’t great, and he was flagged a few too mant times, but we certainly expected to see more of him, after all, it’s not every player that can turn 11.4% of their pass rushes into pressure.
Stats: Four sacks, two hits and 22 hurries. 13 defensive stops.
Grade: +8.0 (+7.2 for pass rushing)
2009 didn’t result in an increased workload and the drafting of Everette Brown saw Johnson slip down the depth chart. Johnson finished with fewer snaps played than Brown, though some of this can be attributed to missing a number of games.
He was still bringing a healthy amount of pressure with quarterbacks feeling his presence on 10.61% of plays (compared to the 8.68% of Brown) but management seemed determined to justify trading a future first rounder away. Ignoring Panther personnel decisions, it was still impressive. Here was a guy who, whenever he was getting on the field, was playing well. Plus Julius Peppers was about to leave.
Stats: 12 sacks, 11 hits and 58 hurries. 48 defensive stops.
Grade: +43.8 (including a +32.6 for pass rushing)
2010 was the breakout year that we’d be expecting, only with a double dose of red bull. We’d pegged it before the season that Johnson was one to watch if the Panthers would give him the opportunity, but even in our wildest “told you so” moments we didn’t quite see this type of year coming.
Johnson simply obliterated right tackles.
His pass rushing numbers on the year were not just among those of the elite pass rushers, his were best of all. No defensive end had more combined sacks, hits and hurries than the 81 of Johnson and what’s more, he did it consistently throughout the year. We saw some players rack up stats in a few games as they feasted on bad opposition. Johnson just beat everyone. Outside of the opening game against the Giants, he didn’t have a single day with a negative pass rush grade and 11 times he managed an “in the green” grade of +1.0 or (considerably) more.
Take what Johnson was able to do to potential big money free agent Tyson Clabo. The Falcons’ right tackle enjoyed a successful year, especially with his pass protection. In two games against Clay Matthews for example, Clabo surrendered just one pressure to the Defensive Player of the Year candidate. In two games against Charles Johnson (including Week 17 where Johnson spent nearly half of his snaps lined up on the right side or at defensive tackle), Clabo gave up a sack, a hit and six pressures.
The only thing that stopped Johnson from being considered for the DPoY (and he should have been) was that he played on a terrible team. So I’m asking the question, is it his fault his team didn’t address the defensive tackle position, overestimated the worth of Matt Moore, or relied on rookie receivers (among other problems)?
All of this is before you even get into looking at how good a player he was in run defense. Extremely active, he has the ability to disengage and locate ball carriers, which is a large part of why he finished with 48 defensive stops (leading all defensive ends). You just need to go through his highlight reel (as I’ve had the pleasure of doing as I write this) to see how disruptive a force he is.
It’s that combined ability that had him at No. 2 in our 4-3 defensive end rankings on the year, and it’s that ability that makes me think whoever gets him is about to get a bargain, whatever the price.
So what now for Johnson? Well, first there’s the little matter of the lockout being resolved. Then, as a 4-year player, the question of his restricted / unrestricted status needs to be cleared up. It could all shake out so that one of the leagues premier defensive ends gets to hit free agency.
Now you can understand how Carolina let it happen. They had a choice between a few players for the franchise tag and went with the excellent Ryan Kalil. While I recognize the importance of a center (especially with a rookie quarterback), I question not placing the tag on a player like Johnson. He’s the type of defensive end that just doesn’t come along all that often, and what’s more, he’s still young, just 24. He’s the kind of free agent teams will be battling each other to sign.
What’s more, it’s something that could come back to haunt them twice a year.
If Johnson is able to hit free agency, there’s one particular team that is in the market for a defensive end that could come calling. A team that hasn’t been scared to pay big in recent years. A team that has witnessed the destructiveness of Johnson first hand. The Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons need for defensive end help is overstated, but Johnson is better than anything they have on the roster, and that’s not a slight to the ever impressive John Abraham. Johnson’s possibly the only guy out there who plays the run and attacks the quarterback equally well, and he has a history of making life tough for Atlanta (in two games in 2010 he picked up 18 pressures on 66 pass rushes).
So, while everyone wonders about the Falcons pursuing Ray Edwards, I wonder if history tells us they look at Johnson. A Georgia native, Johnson played for the Bulldogs, and Atlanta would have done extensive scouting on him given their multiple yearly meetings with Carolina (and we know how teams like to pick up guys who played in the same division).
Of course Atlanta wouldn’t be the only team interested. If Cleveland wanted to make a splash in free agency, Johnson would fill a hole immediately. The same can be said of a Titans team that could lose a number of their defensive ends in free agency. Denver’s switch back to a 4-3 would be a lot smoother if Coach Fox could bring Johnson with him from Carolina.
Essentially, any team that needs defensive end help need look no further. Charles Johnson isn’t a star in the making, he’s already a star.