The decision to make Charles Johnson one of the league's highest paid pass rushers has come under scrutiny from time to time, but thus far he's earning the paycheck in 2012.
Fans will never know whether bringing back Johnson was largely a reactionary move-- one to ensure the Panthers didn't lose two pass rushers to free agency without compensation. While the large extension for CJ may not have been a direct effect of Julius Peppers' departure, it did exacerbate the lack of pass rush Carolina had, and by virtue of that made retaining Johnson an imperative.
Prior to the start of the 2012 season Pro Football Focus did an exhaustive three year examination of edge rushers, and found that Charles Johnson had been one of the league's best over this time period. While he may not lead the league in sacks year-in, year-out, this did show that on 11.21% of snaps he managed to pressure the QB, which put him as the 10th best defensive end over these three years. In this regard CJ was better than Julius Peppers (20th), Jared Allen (19th), and Clay Matthews (11th). These are the kind of numbers teams look at when choosing to sign players, so talking heads can continue to mock the contract, while those in the know understand just how good Big Money has been.
The concern is always that a player selected lower in the draft will choose to coast once they get their first huge contract extension-- ask Titans' fans how they're feeling about Chris Johnson's 2.9 yards per carry, or the fact he's yet to score a touchdown this year. Thankfully for the Carolina Panthers not all CJ's are created equal, and Charles remains one of the NFL's elite.
Taking stock after five games Pro Football Focus again looked at edge rushers, and Johnson remains one of the best. Getting pressure on 13.1% of all snaps, Charles Johnson is currently rated 9th in the NFL. The hard pill to swallow will always be that $12 million-per-year contract, but considering he's a 26-year-old defensive end who is going to be in his prime for another 4-5 years, that's really not a huge issue. Tamba Hali (13th on PFF's list) is earning $10 million per-year, Mario Williams (who didn't make the top-20) is earning $16 million, and veteran John Abraham is making right around $6.5 million, but ranks 20th.
It's a case of 'you get what you pay for', and under this new CBA top-tier player are going to get paid handsomely. The only two players who are on their second contracts who are out-performing CJ for less money are Broncos pass rusher Elvis Dumervil (5th), who is making $10.2 million, and Miami's Cameron Wake (2nd), a steal at just over $7 million a year. What both Dumervil and Wake benefit from is a supporting cast, one who can soak up some of those double-teams, and take the pressure off on every down. If either Greg Hardy or Frank Alexander prove they can be every down pass rushers it's only natural to assume Big Money will be the benefactor.
For now pining for what could be is inconsequential, instead let's enjoy having solace that while the contract was big, the performance is matching it.