DT Ed Johnson (#99) is playing well in the middle for the Panthers. (Photo by John Clark)
CHARLOTTE – After trading away a pair of draft picks last fall to acquire Tank Tyler and Louis Leonard, the Carolina Panthers figured they’d nicely addressed their needs at defensive tackle for awhile.
But now, three games into the 2010 season both are gone and no longer figure into the team’s future.
Tyler was the big surprise on cut down day, while Leonard was released on Tuesday after the team’s 0-3 start because he wasn’t producing.
Those decisions came on the heels of an offseason in which the Panthers parted ways with long-time starters Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu, who was coming off a torn Achilles, and decided not to re-sign 36-year-old Hollis Thomas, an important stop-gap on last year’s line.
But while the Panthers probably never imagined carrying Ed Johnson and Derek Landri as their starters and Nick Hayden and Andre Neblett, an undrafted rookie from Temple, as their reserves, they’ve been pleasantly pleased so far with the results. While they aren’t getting the pressure they’d like from inside and will almost surely address the position next offseason, the tackles are part of a defensive unit that’s allowing just 3.1 yards per carry, sixth-best in the NFL.
"You get guys, you put them out there and you evaluate them," coach John Fox said of the surprising decisions.
"Right now, they've done a pretty good job. We're 14th in defense and sixth per play, and we've been out there (on the field) quite a bit. So as a unit, they're all playing pretty hard and playing pretty tough."
It’s hard to figure who’s been the bigger surprise for the Panthers – Johnson or Landri.
Johnson, a 16-game starter for Indianapolis in 2007, was twice waived by the Colts and had only started five games over the previous two seasons. Combined with a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, there were many who wondered if Johnson’s career was over.
“It was a fight for me,” said Johnson, who came to Carolina in part because of his relationship with defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, who coached him in Indianapolis.
“I just stuck with it and I’m thankful to God I’m able to be here. I just kept doing the things that made me successful in the past. What I’ve done, yeah, it feels good. But it will feel even better once we started getting some W’s.”
Johnson said he never doubted himself.
Nor did Landri, whom Carolina claimed off waivers in December from Jacksonville.
Like Johnson, he’s enjoying a rebirth with the Panthers.
He played in 35 games for the Jaguars from 2007-09 but was released after what he termed a “difference of opinion” with some members of the Jaguars strength and conditioning staff.
“I think I still play the way I was taught in high school – play as hard as you can as long as you can,” Landri said. “It’s the old mentality of see ball, find ball, get ball, that type of thing. It’s not just about how hard you play, it’s about how smart you play.”
The release of Leonard earlier this week opens the door for more playing time for Hayden and Neblett, who have mostly been inactive this year while playing behind Leonard.
Hayden is the only one of the four tackles on the roster who played for Carolina last season – he started three games – while Neblett was the only undrafted rookie from this year’s class to make the 53-man roster.
“I’m sad to see Louis go because he was one of the guys who was showing me the ropes,” Neblett said, “but at the same time it’s an opportunity for me. My Dad called me and saw the news on the website and I knew right then and there I had to get my mind right because I was going to play now. Every week I’ve been preparing to play and now I’m going to get my opportunity.”
NOTES: Defensive end Tyler Brayton (ankle) and Greg Hardy (foot), offensive tackle Jeff Otah (knee) and linebacker Jamar Williams (neck) were held out of practice for a second straight day Thursday.
Starting guards Travelle Wharton (ankle) and Mackenzy Bernadeau (shoulder) practiced on a limited basis again, but should be fine for Sunday’s game.