It might be the right move.
Johnson is second on Carolina’s all-time sack list with 62.5, a majority coming from the left side. He’s led the team in sacks four of the last five seasons, including last season with 8.5, his lowest total since 2009.
The one year during that time Johnson didn’t lead Carolina in sacks was 2013, when Greg Hardy had 15 from the right side. With Hardy now a member of the Dallas Cowboys, the Panthers are looking for somebody to replace his production against the quarterback’s blind side.
Johnson might be the right candidate.
At 28, he’s not as fast as he was when Carolina selected him in the third round of the 2007 draft. That’s not a knock on Johnson, still at 6-foot-2 and 285 pounds the leader of the Panthers defense. But a lost step makes it tougher to get around the opposing team’s left tackle, who often is in the 6-5, 320-pound range.
Moving Johnson against less athletic right tackles might create more opportunities for him to get to the quarterback. Carolina has plenty of young, athletic players in Kony Ealy, Mario Addison and Frank Alexander who are capable of playing on the left side when it needs to bring pressure. Wes Horton also can play the spot, although he’s primarily a run stopper.
There were moments on Thursday when defensive tackle Kawann Short (6-3, 315) lined up on the left side with the first unit.
One of the beauties of Carolina’s line is that most of the players are capable of playing end or tackle, depending on the situation. Ealy has spent time at left end, right end and tackle over the past two weeks.
The Panthers ultimately would like to find two every-down ends, not Johnson on one side and a committee of three as they had on the right side last season after Hardy went on the commissioner’s exempt list following his domestic violence issue.
But more than anything the Panthers want to pressure the quarterback like they did in 2013, when they led the league with 60 sacks. Pressure is key to maximizing defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s system.
If Johnson can create more havoc from the right side than he did from the left side last season, perhaps this experiment will turn into something.
“We’ll see,’’ Johnson said. “When we get into training camp, we’ll see.’’