The Carolina Panthers took a hit to their defensive line and leadership group Friday when veteran edge rusher Charles Johnson was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy.
Johnson’s suspension begins immediately and he cannot return until the day after Carolina’s game against Tampa Bay on Dec. 24.
Johnson, 31, who underwent a microdiscectomy in the spring, did not try to shift blame in a statement he released through the team Friday.
“I accept full responsibility,” he said. “I have been recovering from back surgery, dealing with the daily grind of football and mistakenly thought this would help. It was an error in judgment on my part. We have a special group here I wanted to be a part of and felt an obligation to do my part by getting back as soon as possible.
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“I have always prided myself on being a person who does things the right way through hard work, dedication and sacrifice. I want to apologize to my team, Mr. Richardson and Panthers fans for the mistake.
“Regretfully I have disappointed people but I promise to come back ready to redeem myself when the suspension is over.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who learned of the suspension Thursday night, said he was disappointed in Johnson, a former captain and one of the team’s longest-tenured players.
“That’s just disappointing. It’s hard,” Rivera said. “The biggest thing we’ve got to understand is that it’s no different than if the guy blew an ankle out or something like that, and you’ve got to have the next guy ready to roll.”
Rivera said Julius Peppers, the future Hall of Famer who’s been coming off the bench, would probably start in Johnson’s spot Sunday at New Orleans. Rivera said coaches will continue to be judicious with playing time for Peppers, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks.
Johnson signed a two-year extension worth $8 million during the offseason. He will forfeit $250,000 of his $1 million in base salary this season, plus a percentage of his signing bonus.
Johnson’s 67.5 career sacks are second behind Peppers’ 89.5 on the Panthers’ all-time list. But Johnson has struggled this season in his return from back surgery.
Johnson has 17 tackles and has yet to record a sack, despite starting all 11 games. His 13 quarterback pressures are the third-most on the team.
Rivera said every defensive end’s snaps would increase. That includes undrafted rookie Bryan Cox Jr., who will be on the active list for just third time this season Sunday against the Saints.
“Definitely been waiting, been preparing and practicing real hard. Just now I’ve got my opportunity,” Cox said. “The little game experience that I did have, it was good to get out there and get my feet wet.”
Rivera expressed confidence in Cox, whose father had a long career as an NFL linebacker.
“The young man’s played for us a couple times before and he’s done very well when he’s had his chance,” Rivera said. “He’s a solid pass rusher, a good defender. I really think he’s a young man that has an opportunity to grow into a good role someday.”
Rivera also pointed to Wes Horton as another edge rusher who will be counted on more heavily. Horton had a strip-sack vs. Jets quarterback Josh McCown that resulted in Luke Kuechly’s fumble return for a touchdown in the Panthers’ win.