DEFENSIVE END PREVIEW: The Panthers struggled to get consistent production from the position in terms of sacks last season, yet Carolina still finished sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks. The front office showed confidence in the group by not adding any defensive ends in free agency or the draft, and the group is hungry to prove their bosses right.
1. What kind of season will Charles Johnson have?
That's among the most fascinating questions as training camp fast approaches. Johnson was a model of consistency prior to 2015, averaging 10.5 sacks per season from 2010-14 while missing just two games. He only recorded one sack last season and missed seven games with a hamstring injury, but he did appear to return to form by recording one sack in each of Carolina's three postseason games. The Panthers released the nine-year veteran in early March, but he re-signed a team-friendly deal days later. He returns aiming to prove he still has something in the tank while aiming to help the only NFL team he's ever played for continue its winning ways. Regardless of his sack total, expect him to continue to be disruptive in the run game.
2. Can Kony Ealy pick up where he left off in Super Bowl 50?
Shortly after Johnson broke down physically, Ealy enjoyed a breakout. He moved to the left side and soon started a streak of five consecutive games with a sack. Ealy exited the starting lineup when Johnson returned and failed to post a sack for seven consecutive games, only to cap the year by matching a Super Bowl record with three sacks in addition to snaring his first career interception. Ealy has finished strong in each of his first two NFL seasons, but now he'll aim to start strong and capture the level of consistency he and the Panthers crave. It is within him to truly burst onto the scene in 2016, but it will be interesting to see how he responds to starting opposite Johnson – something he's done just twice in two years.
3. What kind of production can the Panthers expect behind their starters?
Mario Addison has quietly developed into a reliable rusher on passing downs in particular, recording at least six sacks each of the past two seasons. Beyond him, the Panthers are excited about their prospects but realistically unsure about what they'll get. Wes Horton has proved valuable as a run stopper but was twice waived by the team last season before finishing the year on the practice squad. Then there are four players with intriguing potential but plenty to prove. Ryan Delaire corralled two sacks in his NFL debut but then just a half-a-sack in his subsequent eight games of action. Rakim Cox and Arthur Miley spent 2015 on the practice squad and injured reserve respectively following promising preseasons, and former Detroit Lions fourth-round draft pick Larry Webster was signed to a future contract after the season. The Panthers would love nothing more than to see a couple of those guys resoundingly announce their presence at training camp and beyond.
View photos of Carolina's defensive ends in action.