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Carolina Panthers reach deal to keep key DE Johnson

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - The Carolina Panthers have agreed to a deal to keep prized defensive end Charles Johnson and avoid losing him to free agency, the team said on their website on Tuesday.

The 25-year-old Johnson, an aggressive pass rusher who was one of the lone bright spots for the league-worst Panthers last season, will sign a six-year deal worth up to $72 million when the NFL's free agency period starts on Friday.

Carolina was determined to retain Johnson after he led the team with 11.5 sacks in 2010, his first season as a starter.

Johnson also tied a franchise record with sacks in six consecutive games last season but could not rescue the team from a posting an appalling 2-14 record.

Johnson's retention follows the drafting of quarterback Cam Newton with the top overall pick, with both players expected to be key to the Panthers' hopes of a turnaround next season.

(Writing by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Ian Ransom; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)