Panther's Johnson making progress, but he's still a backup

Darin GanttAugust 18, 2008 

Landon Johnson

CHARLOTTE -- When they signed him in March, the Carolina Panthers knew they liked linebacker Landon Johnson.

They just didn't know what to do with him.

For now, the highest-priced free agent pickup of the offseason's getting a few repetitions with the starters, but hardly what most expected after his three-year, $10 million deal. Instead, he's backing up incumbent Na'il Diggs, and giving the Panthers the kind of versatile backup they haven't enjoyed since Chris Draft left town two years ago.

"You never really know what to expect coming in, but I think things have gone pretty well," the soft-spoken Johnson said. "I'm learning the defense and I'm enjoying playing with my teammates and I like the coaches a lot; I can't complain about anything.

"You're never promised anything. You just go out there and do your work and see what happens, that's what I'm doing. I'm trying to work, and that's the same thing he's doing."

There's no question Johnson was productive enough to warrant a job. He led Cincinnati in tackles three of the last four years, while playing all three linebacker spots at different junctures. He started 53 games there -- 21 on the weakside, 20 in the middle and 12 at strongside -- registering at least 130 tackles three times.

But like Draft, he was a guy who teams always felt like they could upgrade from, solid but not sensational. The Bengals used their first-round pick on Southern Cal linebacker Keith Rivers, adding some star quality to the spot held by the workmanlike Johnson.

"I'm really glad I got the opportunity to play all three positions in Cincinnati, that was a very valuable experience because as far as going into a game and having a feel for all three spots," Johnson said. "I'm just looking forward to the season and hopefully I can help us win.

"I mean, there's a little saying, the more you can do the better, so you can't limit yourself to anything. You have to keep an open mind and learn as much as possible as quick as possible and then just be ready wherever they need you."

As recent years here have shown, that could be anywhere, which makes him a a near-perfect fit for the Panthers.

Last season, the steady Diggs was shuffled aside so Jon Beason could start on the weakside until Dan Morgan had the perhaps inevitable season-ending injury. Diggs got his job back four weeks later when Beason moved inside for good. They also relied on Draft in the past, spotting him wherever the need was that week, knowing he was capable at all of them.

"He was a player we liked, a guy who had been productive with his other team," Panthers coach John Fox said. "And he was our kind of guy, and so we thought he fit well.

"Where he ends up is a little bit on him. So far he's done a good job and he's a guy we're very happy with."

The "our kind of guy," tag is significant, as the Panthers prefer their players low-key. Johnson's taking that to a new level.

He's well-spoken and polite, but not even discussions of Cincinnati's renegade history draws more than a sheepish grin out of him, nor does talk of the Panthers' own recent problems.

"I didn't really pay too much attention to it," Johnson said. "I just tried to do my job and let everything else handle itself.

"Same way (here), I just try to do my job and let everything else handle itself."

• EXTRA POINTS: The Panthers are slowly getting healthy again. Cornerback Chris Gamble and tight ends Dante Rosario and Chris Conklin returned to the field Sunday, leaving them with the smallest crew in weeks working on the side with strength coaches.

Wide receivers Muhsin Muhammad (ribs) and D.J. Hackett (toe) are still out, along with strong safety Chris Harris (groin) and tight end Gary Barnidge (gluteal strain).

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