SPARTANBURG, S.C. – They have the respect of their teammates. They have the respect of their fans. But as proud professionals at the highest level of the game, linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson still feel like they're working to earn respect league-wide.
The respect they covet is warranted.
In 2013, Davis set career highs with 151 tackles – his third career 100-tackle season, four sacks and eight passes defensed.
Johnson recorded 11 sacks and 21 quarterback pressures, becoming the first player in team history to have at least nine sacks in four consecutive years.
Neither player has ever been to a Pro Bowl.
"Being in the division, we knew who the guys that could play were. Those two guys were definitely on our radar as game-changers and game-breakers. They are definitely Pro Bowl-caliber," said safety Thomas DeCoud, who went to the Pro Bowl as a member of the Atlanta Falcons in 2012. "The Pro Bowl is such a finicky thing. It can be a litmus test for how good a player is. But it can also be kind of lying."
The merits of a Pro Bowl nomination can be debated, but regardless, the pursuit of recognition drives Davis and Johnson.
"I look at that as motivation. Obviously, the league doesn't know about me," Davis said. "My goal going into this season is to earn the respect of the league. I know that I have to be better than I was last year, because obviously, last year wasn't good enough. It's all about making the league take note."
Said Johnson: "I'm always hungry. People don't consider me a Pro Bowl D-end, you just have to earn it. You earn your right to get to the Pro Bowl. I don't want anything given to me. I always want to earn my way to anything. I want to be considered a top D-end."
So Davis and Johnson (who now weighs 275 pounds – the lightest he's been since his freshman year at Georgia) will continue to strive for the recognition they deserve. And the better they play, the better the Panthers defense will be.
After finishing second in the NFL in total defense in 2013, there's room for plenty of improvement.
"We went back and we watched the film and we saw that we left a lot of plays out there," Davis said. "We could have very easily been the No. 1 defense in the league if we minimized some of the mistakes we had. That's been our focal point.
"We feel like with the guys we have on this defense, if we can do that, we can definitely improve on our numbers from last year and give Seattle (Seahawks' defense) a run for their money."
In Johnson's opinion, every defense in the league currently stands on equal footing. The Panthers have to prove all over again that they are among the league's elite units.
And in the process, perhaps Davis and Johnson will finally reap some individual honors.
"We can't worry about last year," Johnson said. "We have to start from the bottom, rebuild and keep working our way up."