Free agency seems somewhat inevitable at this point, and while the Panthers chose to tag Ryan Kalil as their franchise player, no situation is more urgent than keeping Charles Johnson at defensive end. Johnson's a rare commodity - a left end that can rush the passer without a compliment on the other side; a 280 lb player who can drop into coverage. An end that's exceptional at both run stopping and pass
After losing Julius Peppers in free agency prior to 2010, the team's biggest question mark was pass rushing, specifically replacing Peppers. It turned out to be the least of the team's worries, with Johnson getting arguably more pressure than any other end in the NFL per ProFootballFocus.com; he had 81 QB disruptions, second only in preseason 2010, it looked like there were various players to step up. Tyler Brayton had 2 sacks in the first quarter of preseason play; Johnson, Greg Hardy, and Everette Brown all pitched in at least one two-sack game. Johnson, a part-time player who spent a lot of 2009 rushing from DT situationally, seemed the least likely to step into a dominant role, but owned it and earned it.
Johnson also provides flexibility. His 2009 stats do show that, despite playing at over 290, he was getting pressure while inside. Leaned out in 2010, he was able to create pressure outside as an edge rusher, or with inside moves (James Anderson blitzed strongside more than any other Panther player in any gap, necessitating Johnson to take inside moves at times). If you consider Ron Rivera's potential for running a hybrid 3-4 or 4-3 to go with the basic Jim Johnson 4-3 zone blitz, Johnson has the ability to create pressure outside at DE, move inside to a 3-4 type
alignment as a 5-technique 34 DE, or if necessary move inside to the 3-technique. The ability to rush the outside (the body lean - the quick step - the radial movement when contacting the OT) is a huge crutch to most 3-4 left ends if the OLB doesn't crash (you have to keep contain, and get upfield, so your moves are limited).
So Johnson, assuming he can take care of his production as he has in the past, is essentially an ideal player for the needs of the Ron Rivera defense. Outside rush? Check. Inside? Had it for years. Drops? Able, at the least (Johnson dropped into coverage occasionally with both Mike Trgovac and Ron Meeks). Run stopping? Absolutely, elite.
A lack of talent outside Johnson on the DL is another concern. While the defense has some cornerstones (Jon Beason; Thomas Davis if healthy; you could make an argument for Chris Gamble or Charles Godfrey on a good day), the defensive line is, at best, young without any veterans at DT; and with Tyler Brayton and Johnson as the veterans, Brayton seems to be a situational player only. Everyone else is young, and suddenly instead of platooning/competing Greg Hardy and Everette Brown, you're stretching
both of them into potential starting roles.
Brayton was sackless last year in 332 attempts, with 19 disruptions last year and 93 over 3 years/1200+ rush attempts (9.5 sacks, but none last year). Brayton does rush inside, and does lose some of the obvious rush snaps to others; still, he seems to have become an over-30 player that seems to have been missed in the purge last year. He may not have much to give anymore. Losing Johnson, and cutting Brayton, leaves two young ends without much past production.