The Carolina Panthers displayed urgency when they traded up in the third round of April’s NFL draft to select pass rusher DJ Johnson. But through the first three weeks of the regular season, the coaching staff hasn’t been too eager to get him on the field.
Johnson, who is set to turn 25 in October, arrived in Carolina as a long-term project. Instead of rushing the former college tight end onto the field, the Panthers have decided to pack their pass-rushing rotation with veterans.
The rookie has taken a backseat to starters Brian Burns and Justin Houston and backups Yetur Gross-Matos and Amare Barno.
“We’ve been really blessed — we have a lot of good players at that position,” defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero said Thursday. “Justin, Brian — Yetur has been playing really well — Barno, and so . . . (Johnson) is doing a great job, I’ll say that. We like where he is, we like the progress that he’s making, and it’s just a matter of him finding those opportunities. But there’s always fluctuations, it’s week-by-week, and we’ll see what happens.”
Johnson, an Oregon alum, is three years removed from playing on offense. He became a defensive starter in his final year with the Ducks and produced six sacks during that campaign.
The Panthers then traded the No. 93 (third round) and No. 123 picks (fourth round) to the Pittsburgh Steelers to get to the No. 80 pick (third round) to select Johnson in this year’s draft.
Following his selection, head coach Frank Reich said he envisioned Johnson being an immediate contributor as a run-stopper. But through three games, Johnson has been an afterthought to pass rushers of the proven variety.
Burns and Houston are the cemented starters, while Gross-Matos has thrived of late in a rover role. Barno has been a standout on special teams.
Veteran Marquis Haynes — who is currently on injured reserve with a back injury — is also eligible to return to the lineup in Week 5.
With everyone else filling out the game-day roster, Johnson has found himself watching from the sideline. But with the wear and tear of the season likely to impact most position groups in the second half of the season, Johnson could eventually find a role later in his rookie campaign.
“We’re never going to play the season with just two guys — you just can’t do it, right?” Evero said. “We feel good about Burns, obviously. We feel good about Justin. But those guys can play 70 snaps, and it’s great to have quality backups like we do. (Gross-Matos) has done a great job, Barno is getting an opportunity, and whoever else it might be down the road. You’ve got to have four or five guys at that position always going, to keep guys fresh for those known passing situations, and to keep them fresh throughout the course of the season.”