The Carolina Panthers’ eventful offseason continued Monday with the release of two veteran defensive players whose production had dropped off.
The Panthers cleared nearly $6 million against the salary cap by cutting defensive end Charles Johnson and safety Kurt Coleman, two defensive mainstays coming off disappointing, injury-plagued seasons.
The release of Johnson, 31, was expected. The longtime Panther finished without a sack and was suspended four games for after a positive test for performance enhancing drugs in 2017 following offseason back surgery.
Johnson’s release creates $3.25 million in cap space for the Panthers, who began Monday about $20 million below the projected $179 million cap.
The free agency period begins March 14.
Johnson, the Panthers’ third-round pick in 2007, is second in franchise history behind Julius Peppers in sacks (67.5) and forced fumbles (19).
The Panthers are still waiting to hear whether Peppers will retire or play another season.
“It’s a tough day. Charles is a solid pro,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera told the team website.
Following the 2011 lockout, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney signed Johnson to a six-year, $76 million deal that at the time was the richest in team history.
The contract earned Johnson the nickname “Big Money,” although the reticent player never liked the moniker. And though Johnson has never gone to a Pro Bowl, he averaged more than 10 sacks per season the first four years after signing the mega-contract.
But age and injuries slowed Johnson, and most observers predicted that Johnson would be a cap casualty when Hurney started trimming the roster.
The decision to cut ties with Coleman was a little more surprising.
Coleman, 29, started 42 games over his three seasons with Carolina, but had a salary cap number of $5.15 million for 2018.
The Panthers will save $2.65 million against the cap, but will carry $2.5 million of Coleman’s prorated signing bonus in dead money.
Coleman had signed a three-year extension after the Panthers’ Super Bowl season of 2015, when he had seven interceptions. But his production dropped the past two years.
Coleman missed four games last season with a sprained knee and finished without an interception. Coleman’s 11 interceptions were the most in the NFC over the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
“Kurt came in and brought leadership and direction to our young secondary. He helped us establish what our identity is,” Rivera said.
The move leaves the Panthers with five safeties on the roster – veterans Mike Adams and Colin Jones, who’s more of a special teams player, plus Demetrius Cox, Dezmen Southward and Damian Parms.
Jairus Byrd, another veteran safety, is a free agent and not expected to return.
With Coleman’s exit and no obvious heir apparent on the roster, the safety position now moves up the list of the Panthers’ offseason needs.