Left Defensive End #1: Charles Johnson
At the beginning of the month I wrote about Carolina Panthers’ Charles Johnson and whether or not he is underrated. After looking at the numbers, Johnson is one of the more underrated pass rushers in the game and more importantly one of the more consistent over the past five seasons.
Since 2010, he has 52.5 sacks which is tied for fifth in the NFL but he is the only player in the Top seven in this category who wasn’t selected to a Pro Bowl or All-Pro. He also has not had a season with less than 8.5 sacks and three of those years the sack total was 11 or higher.
Last season, Johnson shouldered a great deal of the pass rush with Greg Hardy’s suspension and he could face a similar challenge in 2015. The Panthers have already started to toy around with the idea of moving Johnson to the right side. According to the Charlotte Observer’s Jonathan Jones, Johnson has spent time lining up at right defensive end this offseason.
While Jones says it is unlikely, the idea of lining Johnson up against what is generally a lesser talented tackle on the right side could pay dividends. No matter where Johnson lines up this upcoming season, he is the leader of this group and the best the Panthers have at the position.
Right Defensive End #1: Wes Horton
The other defensive end position is not nearly as solidified and could be a platoon for a majority of the year. Ahead of training camp, I would pencil Horton in as the starter but that is not a guarantee he will be there by the time the regular season rolls around.
The former USC Trojan is entering his third season in the NFL and joined the Panthers as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2013 season. He played 10 games as a rookie and finished with eight tackles and two sacks but saw those numbers jump to 26 tackles and three sacks in 16 games last year.
At 6’5” and 270 pounds, Horton has shown to be a solid run defender and Pro Football Focus gave him a rating of 1.1. If he wants to be the primary starter in 2015, he will need to improve his pass rush (-12.0).
Right Defensive End #2: Kony Ealy
When the Panthers drafted Kony Ealy in the second round out of Missouri, the plan wasn’t for him to see significant minutes his rookie season. However, when Hardy was suspended those plans changed.
Early in the season, Ealy looked overmatched and through the first 12 games he only had one sack. The last few weeks were a different story as he finished the regular season with a sack in each of the final three games.
The Panthers hope that finish to 2014 is only a precursor of what 2015 holds for the second-year pass rusher. He is expected to make a strong push for the starting right defensive end job this training camp.
Left Defensive End #2: Mario Addison
Mario Addison is another player who is expected to be competing for the starting right defensive end job but for now he is the primary backup to Charles Johnson. Addison is entering his fifth season in the NFL and his third with Carolina.
Last year was Addison best season of his career and finished with career highs in tackles (23), sacks (6.5) and fumble recoveries (2). He finished second on the team in sacks, behind only Johnson.
Right Defensive End #3: Frank Alexander
One player who could be an X-Factor for this group is Frank Alexander. He missed a majority of last year due to two drug suspensions and by the time he was eligible to return the rotation was already set.
Alexander was a fourth round draft pick by the Panthers in 2012 and actually played in all 16 games as a rookie. He finished that season with 18 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries.
This upcoming season could be a make or break year for Alexander but he has a ton of potential to be a quality pass rusher. The team is going to be looking for a way to replace the lost production with the departure of Greg Hardy. While one player probably won’t be able to do that, Alexander could be a key contributor to a rotation at the right defensive end position.
Rest of the Position
There are three other players the Panthers currently have on the roster at defensive end. Rakim Cox went undrafted prior to the 2014 season but was able to earn a spot with the Carolina Panthers from his performance at the NFL Veteran Combine this offseason.
The team also added two rookie defensive ends, Steve Miller and Arthur Miley, who worked out at the team’s rookie minicamp earlier this offseason. The defensive end position is incredibly deep and it is going to be tough for any of these players to crack the 53-man roster. However, it would not be a surprise to see one or two of them earn a spot on the practice squad.
Brandon Croce is the Lead Publisher for PantherInsider.com. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonCroce.