NFC South top 25: No. 18

We continue our series on my projected top 25 players in the NFC South for the 2012 season with No. 18:

Charles Johnson, defensive end, Carolina.

What he did in 2011: After getting rewarded with a $72 million contract coming out of the lockout, Johnson produced nine sacks and 40 tackles. Those were very respectable numbers. But the sack total was down from 11.5 in 2010. When you’re making the kind of money Johnson is, anything less than double-digit sacks is a disappointment. Don’t put all the blame on Johnson. Carolina had a ton of injuries at linebacker and defensive tackle and very little production from the rest of the pass rush.

Why he’s No. 18 in 2012: Johnson will turn 26 in July. He’s still young and there is plenty of room for him to grow as a pass-rusher. With a healthy Ron Edwards at defensive tackle, I think Johnson could see fewer blockers. Carolina trailed a lot of the time last season, so Johnson didn’t have a huge amount of opportunities for sacks. I think Carolina’s overall defense should be better and the offense can get this team some leads. That could force other teams to pass more often. That’s why I have little doubt Johnson will get back to producing double-digit sacks.