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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Panthers pay for potential, not past with Johnson


Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney won't publicly come out and say this, but I can tell you the critics who constantly say his team lacks talent get under his skin.

He has a reason. The Panthers have young talent, talent which might not be obvious to the casual viewer, but the true evaluators notice.

They are lesser-known players on the way up -- not name players on the way down.

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The Panthers took a big step in the right direction of keeping that talent Tuesday by agreeing on a $76 million deal with defensive end Charles Johnson, a deal that includes a reported $30 million signing bonus.

That's big money for sure, but it's for a 25-year-old player at a key position, a player whose best football is in front of him.

Johnson, who had 11½ sacks last season, had several teams pursuing him but made the decision to go back to Carolina. The Atlanta Falcons, who play in his home state, also were in the market, but he passed and returned to a 2-14 team.

When I talked to Hurney last week, we talked about Johnson. He said that Johnson was a main priority, especially since the Panthers lost Julius Peppers to the Chicago Bears last season.

Peppers left for a six-year, $91.5 million deal with $42 million guaranteed. When I asked one general manager if he thought Johnson could come close to that he laughed.

"You're crazy if you think that's happening," the general manager said.

He didn't quite get there, but this is a good contract for a player who had 3 ½ more sacks than Peppers did last season for the Bears. I did talk to a couple of agents Tuesday who were shocked at the numbers.

Some considered Johnson a one-year wonder. A third-round pick in 2007, he had only 10 sacks before 2010. There is a concern that some pass rushers have breakout seasons and then vanish.

"That could hurt what he gets on this market," one GM said Monday. "But the position he plays and that sack total might just offset it. I don't know what he will get, but he's going to get a nice deal."

It didn't seem to hurt, in part because Johnson also excels at playing the run. On the left side, with so many teams right-handed on offense, it's imperative that the left end hold up at the point of attack. Johnson did that last season.

As for the Panthers, it's chic to pick them as an also-ran. A big reason for that is the quarterback uncertainty. They will choose between second-year player Jimmy Clausen and rookie Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

That's youth. And they are also really young at receiver, especially if they trade Steve Smith, which could happen.

This is a team that can grow together. They have a top-tier pass rusher in Johnson. They have a top-tier left tackle in Jordan Gross. That's two of the four most-important positions.

If they can get corner Chris Gamble to bounce back from a subpar season to play like he did in 2009, that's three of the main positions they have covered. Quarterback will take time, which is why the Panthers will struggle again this season.

Don't go to sleep on them in 2012. Making sure Johnson stayed around was a necessary step. Yes, it's a lot of money for a player with 21 ½ career sacks. Sometimes, you have to pay on potential rather than reputation, and this is one of those times.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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