CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers clearly had an eye toward the future when they picked Stanley McClover and Charles Johnson the last two years.
The future was all they had left Wednesday, as starting defensive ends Julius Peppers (knee) and Mike Rucker (illness) were out of practice. That left the two youngsters in prominent roles as they prepare for Dallas, something the team envisioned down the road for them.
"I think they're both young players, that we thought well enough of to draft," coach John Fox said. "Now, it's just, much like any position, getting that game experience."
For McClover and Johnson, that's been a one-at-a-time situation, since the Panthers typically activate just three defensive ends on game day, and two of those spots have been nailed down by Peppers and Rucker. But with the 32-year-old Rucker entering the gloaming of his contract and likely his career here, the Panthers know they need to get an idea what the coming dawn might look like.
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Each of them have shown at different times they might be capable of contributing next year -- even if they're not ready to start at a Rucker level yet -- and the Panthers have taken pains to get looks at them down the stretch, with Johnson up for the first time last week in place of McClover.
"I think if you go through NFL rosters, it's not 100 percent, but there is not a huge percentage of rookies starting and performing at high levels," said Fox, who'd rather have a stick in the eye than many rookies on the field. "(Minnesota running back) Adrian Peterson, obviously, is one guy that comes to mind. What Jon Beason has done and the same thing with (Patrick) Willis out in San Francisco. But that's a very small percentage when you go through all 32 teams in the league and their starting rosters.
"Again, like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get. Getting them that experience helps all of them."
Johnson, the team's third-round pick this year, admitted he wasn't sure he was in for a redshirt season in Charlotte after leaving Georgia a year early. He flashed in college, with 9.5 sacks in his junior year, and said being inactive for the first 13 weeks was a bit of a shock.
"It was tough at first," Johnson said of watching games in street clothes. "Everybody around here gives you advice and they will tell you what is good for you and what is not good for you.
"It was tough at first, but now you realize how far I would have been from back then until now. I will be a way much better player now."
His biggest challenge isn't physical. He's listed at 270 pounds, but plays a little bigger than that. But at 6-foot-2, he still gets swallowed up by larger blockers, and knows he has to work on the technical aspects of the game to get himself on the field more and make a difference when he gets there.
"In college, you knew you were the man, and you can do more freelance," Johnson said. "When you get up there you got the same athletes, you got better athletes and you have to stick to your fundamentals to help you win."
With McClover, the challenge is still partly physical.
He came in here lean and has gotten bigger, but could probably still stand to be stronger. At 263 pounds, his deal is his quick first-step, but so far this season, he hasn't provided much -- with no sacks and just one quarterback hurry in nine games.
Of course, you'd have never known that during training camp, when his barks were a daily staple, thought to be the sound of someone who was going to make plays this year.
McClover said he's a bit disappointed with his own season, but he knows that he's still a work in progress as well.
"I believed I was going to be more productive than I am right now," McClover said of his dog days in August. "That's got something to do with me, realizing what's going on, getting better with my technique and all that.
"It comes with experience. This is my second year, but basically my first year of playing."
Rucker grins when asked about his protégés, knowing they're different types of players, but both with potential of their own. That's why he's in their ear daily, talking about the small points he learned from veterans such as Reggie White when he was young, passing those lessons down.
"A lot of it, we all have the ability, then it becomes the chess match in your head," Rucker said. "Do you know what I'm supposed to do and what that other person's doing and his job and find a way to beat that person, find a way to cheat your alignment, and do things like that. I try to work with them as much as possible.
"With Stan, this is our second year together, and he's grown up a lot from last year. That's expected. I go back to my rookie year, and I see the same type of stuff. There's a whole lot going on. Charles, he's coming around. I was sitting there thinking about that in practice (recently). Some of his moves, his pass-rush moves, are coming around. That just comes with time."