When Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson intercepted Cam Newton late in Thursday’s practice, Johnson flicked the ball back at the Panthers’ $103-million man.
Johnson jokingly said later he’d like to toss something else at Newton: The title of the Panthers’ highest-paid player.
“He deserves it,” Johnson said of the five-year, $103.8 million extension Newton signed this week. “They can call him ‘Big Money’ now, right?”
Johnson was referring to the nickname the Observer bestowed on him after Johnson signed a six-year, $76 million extension in 2011, the most lucrative in team history until this week.
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Johnson was never enamored with the nickname – which was inspired by Johnson’s quote, “Big money do big things” – nor the spotlight that came along with the big contract.
Johnson has been solid, if not spectacular, since signing the deal, leading some fans to wonder whether he was worth it.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera is not among them. Rivera has always commended Johnson on his work ethic, saying he sets the tone for the rest of the defensive line.
Johnson has led the Panthers in sacks in three of the four seasons since receiving his extension. The only year he didn’t was 2013, when Greg Hardy tied a franchise record with 15 sacks.
Johnson got off to a slow start last season, when he faced more double teams without Hardy occupying blockers on the other end. Johnson’s 8.5 sacks were his fewest since 2009.
Johnson has never made it to a Pro Bowl, but cornerback Josh Norman says Johnson remains one of the defensive leaders. He energized the defense during 11-on-11 drills Thursday when he sniffed out a slip screen to a running back and picked off Newton in the backfield.
Rather than take off for the end zone, Johnson backhand-flipped the ball back toward Newton, who caught it. Much trash-talking ensued.
“Any time you get a pick on Cam, you’ve got to have fun with it. Because if he scores, he’s going to have fun, right?” Johnson said. “He was a little salty about that. Anytime a D-lineman gets a pick on a quarterback, they’re going to be salty.”
Norman laughed when asked about Johnson’s pick and good-natured taunt of Newton.
“It’s all fun and games,” Norman said. “Cam’s running around, yelling, hollering. He hadn’t thrown a pick. And he threw one, and we had to give him a little payback. That’s when Charles threw it back to him. I was like, ‘Hah, check you out, a little of your own medicine.’”
Both sides became more animated after Johnson’s play.
After Newton gained big yardage on a scramble a few snaps later, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly chastised Newton for running out of bounds. Newton turned to a couple of reporters and yelled, “I got Luke mad.”
Johnson said his post-interception gesture was done to keep the mood light.
“We’re just trying to make it fun,” he said. “You can’t be out here trying to be all stiff. We’re just trying to make it energetic, talk a little mess to each other. That’s what makes coming out here fun, when guys come out here and watch it then they start laughing.
“If we can work and have fun at the same time, that’s the best of both worlds.”
Johnson, who has played the left end most of his career, also has been lining up on the right side during OTAs. That’s the spot formerly held by Hardy, and one that allows a defensive end to attack a quarterback from the blind side if he beats the left tackle.
“Just trying to get a feel,” Johnson said. “I need to work on my right side. I haven’t worked on it for a while. Just try to switch it up this year.”
Johnson, 28, who is signed through the 2016 season, moved into second place on the Panthers’ career sack list last season with 62.5, surpassing Mike Rucker (55). He needs 19 to overtake Julius Peppers (81) as the all-time leader.
Johnson’s more immediate concern is making sure the Panthers’ pass rush doesn’t suffer following the departure of Hardy, who signed with Dallas during the offseason. That was the case last season when the Panthers recorded 40 sacks, 20 fewer than their NFL-leading and team-record total from 2013.
Several players will get a chance to replace Hardy – including Frank Alexander, Wes Horton and Mario Addison – although Rivera said he’d like one player to win the spot.
“We’re going to have a lot of guys that are going to have a chance to step up,” Johnson said. “So it’s going to be interesting to see who’s going to step up and who’s not.”
As for Newton, Johnson said he’s deserving of the rich contract and a place on what Johnson dubbed the #moneyteam in a congratulatory tweet he posted the day Newton re-upped.
Johnson laughed loudly when a reporter mentioned the hashtag Thursday.
“I do that for all the guys that sign,” he said.
But there can only be one Big Money.
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson