SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) It took only one ''very awkward'' free agent visit to NFC south rival Tampa Bay to convince defensive end Charles Johnson of what he'd known all along - he only wanted to play for the Carolina Panthers.

His heart was in Carolina, and that was never going to change.

It's why the 30-year-old Johnson took an $8 million pay cut this offseason to return for his 10th season with the defending NFC champion Panthers and a chance to ''chase that (Super Bowl) ring.''

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''All I know is Carolina. All I have wanted to know is Carolina,'' said Johnson, who was selected in the third round of the 2007 NFL draft by the Panthers. ''It's kind of hard to leave something that you have invested so much in. The sky is the limit for this team. I want to help take this team to where we need to be.''

Being a business owner himself - Johnson plans to open a restaurant this fall in Charlotte, North Carolina - he understands the team's decision to release him in March after he tallied just one sack in 2015 and spent seven games on short-term injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Johnson was set to make $11 million in 2016, so he saw the move coming.

But even as the Panthers cut Johnson, they left the door open for his return. They told him to explore the free agent market, but to think about re-signing in Carolina before agreeing to go elsewhere.

Johnson received interest from a handful of teams, but decided to come back to Carolina on a one-year, $3 million deal, turning down an offer from another team worth twice that much, according to his agent Drew Rosenhaus.

''What this deal signifies is Charles is a man of his word and in his heart he bleeds Carolina blue,'' Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said in March.

It is clear Johnson is returning with something to prove -at least to himself.

He's dropped 10 pounds this offseason to get down to 275 in hopes of getting a little quicker. He said he feels lighter on his feet. He's also worked tirelessly to strengthen his nagging back and hamstring problems.

He said he feels great.

Johnson, who had 52 1/2 sacks during a five-year span from 2010-2014 before last year's injury-plagued season, said he has another double-digit sack season left in his tank.

''I'm only 30,'' laughed Johnson, who is slated to start at defensive end opposite Super Bowl standout Kony Ealy. ''There are other guys that are way older than me that are putting up numbers.''

Nonetheless, Johnson views this as a make-or-break season in terms of his NFL career.

If he's not productive or struggles again with injuries, he could fall off the NFL radar and out of the league completely. On the other hand, a productive season could propel him to another big contract and a longer career with the Panthers.

''I'm always going to want to stay where I'm at,'' Johnson said. ''I'm always thinking about coming back to the Panthers. I didn't know how everything is going to be but my mindset was always to come back to the Panthers.''

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