On the Fringes: Opportunity knocks for Panthers LB Clay Johnston

(Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports) Clay Johnston
(Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports) Clay Johnston /

Could opportunity be coming at the right time for Clay Johnston as he looks to make the Carolina Panthers 53-man roster in 2021?

It came as no surprise to see the Carolina Panthers swoop to acquire Clay Johnston once the Los Angeles Rams decided not to take him on their 53-man roster after 2020 training camp. The linebacker has a close association with the organization and it was almost inevitable that those in power made him an offer despite Sean McVay’s men wanting to keep him around in some capacity.

Johnston worked with head coach Matt Rhule during their time together at Baylor. His father Kent is also on the staff as a strength and conditioning coach, so it seemed to be a no-brainer for the player as he looked to forge a successful career in the NFL.

The Panthers stashed Johnston on the practice squad for the majority of the campaign. He appeared in two games throughout the season, featuring in three defensive snaps and 21 on special teams.

A small step in the right direction.

But what comes next will be equally as important.

Johnston gets a more structured offseason period to try and make the team in 2021. Last season’s experience being around the set-up should stand the linebacker in good stead and there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of depth behind the projected starting trio of Shaq Thompson, Denzel Perryman, and Jermaine Carter.

The second-year-pro emerges as one of the Rams’ stars on HBO’s Hard Knocks last summer thanks to his boundless enthusiasm and charismatic approach to practice. Although it wasn’t enough to make the team, it’s worth remembering that Johnston was working his way back from a serious knee injury.

Clay Johnston must put his experience with the Carolina Panthers to good use.

There haven’t been any significant complications since, which is good news.

However, Johnston must take the experience he gained in 2020 and use it in a positive fashion at training camp, which might be enough to swing the pendulum in his favor.

The competition for places is sure to be intense upon Carolina’s return to Wofford College in Spartanburg. This stifling environment coupled with Rhule’s high-tempo practices will mean anybody who makes the roster will have earned it, to put it mildly.

Whether Johnston can reach this goal remains to be seen.

His reckless abandon has hopefully become a little more disciplined with additional coaching over the last year. This could make all the difference as the player looks to emerge from a practice squad member to someone who can make his presence felt on the defensive rotation.

Johnston proved capable of being a sideline-to-sideline presence at the college level that could generate pressure when required. Doing this in the NFL is a completely different matter, so he’ll need to show enough in the way of progress to earn a longer-term stay with the Panthers this time around.

The former seventh-round pick has a lot of work to do, obviously.

Phil Snow’s defense has the scope to be among the NFL’s most dynamic next season if everything falls into place. Johnston needs to convince the coaching staff he can slot in somewhere in the event an established figure is forced to miss time through injury.

5 Carolina Panthers players that must perform for a surprise 2021 playoff berth. light. Must Read

If he cannot do this at camp or whatever reps come his way during the preseason, Johnston might be settling for a place on the practice squad once again.