CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Charles Johnson arrived at training camp in late July with a nickname befitting his enormous new contract.
The defensive end whom teammates promptly dubbed "Big Money" after inking a US$76.5 million contract is paying huge dividends this season for the Carolina Panthers.
Johnson, in his fifth season, is tied for sixth in the league with seven sacks, which gives him 15 over his last 15 games. Although the Panthers are just 2-6, Johnson has been a steadying presence on an otherwise injury-depleted defence.
"He's played extremely well and we're getting our money's worth," coach Ron Rivera said.
Johnson looks to continue his torrid play Sunday when the Panthers host the Tennessee Titans (4-4). But it won't be easy as the Titans have allowed only 12 sacks this year, fourth-fewest in the NFL.
Rivera said that while Johnson has been solid, there's still room for improvement.
If anything, he said Johnson needs to take measures not to do too much, something that's not always easy for a player with a motor that simply doesn't stop.
"The thing is with him on occasion he'll try to more than he needs to do," Rivera said. "I told Charles, look, we're not looking for you to be anything you're not. We're expecting you to be the guy that you've shown on tape. That's why you got the contract. We need a guy to be consistent, which he has been for the most part."
Johnson, who just turned 25, admits he felt plenty of pressure coming into the season after becoming the team's highest-paid player in terms of annual salary at $12.6 million per year.
"No doubt," he said. "You don't want to get the check and then not perform."
Johnson has performed.
Although his seven sacks pale in comparison to NFL leader Jared Allen's 12 1/2, Rivera said he's impressed that Johnson has made big plays at key moments.
And not all of them have been rushing the passer.
Johnson is an every down defensive lineman and takes pride in stopping the run. One of his bigger plays came when he darted in to stop a third-and-two run late in the fourth quarter against Green Bay in Week 2 giving the Panthers a chance to tie the game. However, the offence faltered and the Panthers lost 30-23.
"We talk about impact sacks — do they come at the right time?" Rivera said. "Do they come on the big drive? Do they come early in the game when you're setting the tone or do they come when you have a 21-point lead? If you go back and look at his, his impact sacks and impact plays on short-yardage runs, there's something there. That's why you keep a guy like that and invest that kind of money in him."
Johnson will have his hands full this week against the Titans left tackle Michael Roos.
Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said he'll be aware of where Johnson is on the field at all times, calling his string of sacks "ridiculously impressive."
Johnson emerged on the scene last year in his first full season as a starter following Julius Peppers' departure. With Peppers gone Johnson was suddenly thrust into a leadership role and flourished, parlaying a 10 1/2-sack season into an unrestricted free agent contract that included a $30 million signing bonus.
The Panthers went to great lengths to make sure Johnson stayed in Carolina.
General manager Marty Hurney, Rivera and most of the Panthers defensive coaching staff flew to Miami to meet with Johnson and his agent Drew Rosenhaus on the morning of the first day of free agency.
Johnson said he was "blown away" by the move.
He was even more impressed with the contract the team offered.
"Would you turn that down?" Johnson said with a laugh.
Peppers said Johnson, a third-round pick out of Georgia in 2007, always had the talent but felt like he needed to learn to become a professional.
"Different people come into the league at different stages and at a different level of maturity," Peppers said. "I'm not calling him immature when he first came into the league, but he just wasn't as much of a professional as he needed to be and he grew into that."
Added Peppers: "I'm really more proud of him and how he's handling himself as a player and a professional."
Interestingly enough, it might have taken Peppers leaving for Johnson to begin fulfilling his expectations.
"I think developing into a mature pro and becoming a leader, that all happened when I was given the starting job," Johnson said. "That's when your teammates start looking up to you as a leader."
NOTES: Panthers linebacker Jason Phillips (calf) was the only player held out of practice Wednesday... Rookie cornerback Brandon Hogan was activated from the physically unable to perform list on Tuesday, but Rivera said he'll probably be inactive Sunday against the Tennessee as he continues to work his way back into football shape.... Rivera said the Panthers are looking for ways to use defensive end Thomas Keiser on special teams. Keiser was signed off the practice squad on Tuesday.