CHARLOTTE – A player's role can change in an instant in the NFL.
But Hardy has taken an extended leave of absence, causing those three young defensive ends to be elevated to the forefront.
"It will be a platoon," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We feel good about the young guys."
Johnson, who ranks third in team history with 54 sacks, will continue to anchor the defensive end position, but Rivera wants to make sure he doesn't lean too heavily on the eight-year veteran.
"The person I'm concerned most with now will be Charles Johnson, making sure we don't overload Charles," Rivera said. "We have to be careful with him being the only true veteran guy we have out there."
Addison, Horton and Ealy will need to be produce. They'll get a reinforcement in the form of Frank Alexander, who will return from a four-game suspension in Week 5.
But for now, it's up to them to help Carolina's defensive front maintain its high level of play.
"I know we are going to go out there and bring the intensity," Addison said. "We are going to show up for this defense. The defensive line is going to show up."
ADDISON BRINGS AN EDGE: A former undrafted free agent from Troy who has six career sacks in four seasons, Addison recorded 2.5 of those sacks in the fourth quarter of last week's game against the Detroit Lions.
In 2013 Addison got his first chance at extended playing time and he proved he could provide depth at defensive end and contribute on special teams, where he tied for the team lead with 10 tackles.
His main asset is speed, and he puts it to good use.
"Mario might be one of the faster guys on this team," linebacker Thomas Davis said after the 24-7 win over Detroit. "Mario is a guy that was told that he was too small. He was told that he couldn't play this game or play the position that he wanted to play. He went out and proved a lot of people wrong today."
Carolina has been utilizing Addison's speed on passing downs, when he can pin his ears back and use his explosiveness to terrorize offensive tackles.
The 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end will likely be featured more frequently, and he's excited about the chance to prove he can disrupt plays when teams hand the ball off.
"I can stop the run," Addison said. "People say I'm undersized and I don't weigh enough and all that. I can stop the run.
"Whatever opportunities I get as a D-end, I am going to give it my all. I'm going to do the same thing I did last week."
HORTON WORKS HIS WAY UP: After starting 32 games at Southern California, Horton signed with Carolina in 2013 as an undrafted free agent and played in 10 games as a rookie, recording eight tackles and two sacks.
Last week, he was introduced as a starter for the first time in his NFL career.
"It was an unbelievable experience. To be an undrafted free agent – that's starting from the bottom. I worked my way up and I was proud of myself, to be honest with you," Horton said. "But I thought I could have played a much better game.
"I need a tighter rush angle, a lot cleaner hands. I have to do the little things to make more plays."
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Horton saw action on 47 percent of the defensive plays in Week 2 – second to Johnson among defensive ends. His size helps him set the edge against the run, and because of that, he'll continue to see a high number of snaps.
EALY AIMS TO MAKE EARLY IMPACT: The Panthers were looking to the future when they selected Ealy in the second round from Missouri in the 2014 draft. The future has come a little earlier than expected, and after being inactive for the season opener, Ealy was on the field for 30 plays in Week 2. Now, he is a part of the rotation.
"Kony played very well for us," Rivera said. "I like the effort that he gave."
Ealy's versatility makes him special. He can rush from both end spots and the interior.
Ealy's physical gifts and college production made him a first-round talent in the eyes of many. He acknowledges that the toughest part of his transition has been the mental aspect of the game, as is the case for most rookies.
"I feel like my level of play has definitely progressed," Ealy said. "But I still have a lot to learn. Being at this level, there is never an excuse. I just have to work hard and do better."
Addison and Horton are taking the same approach. And together, this young group of defensive ends will work to galvanize a defensive front that still expects to be the NFL's best.
"I love the rotation. We are winning, kicking butt," Ealy said. "We are doing it together, and that's the difference maker with this D-line."