The Cincinnati Bengals have a number of off-season priorities this year in advance of training camp. Re-signing Geno Atkins should be atop the list. Upgrading at running-back is a possibility. Deciding what culmination of linebackers will make up the starting unit next season is a priority too. That said, one of the more important decisions that must be made by the Bengals is what to do with free agent Michael Johnson.
Johnson doesn’t receive much media acclaim likely because of Atkins’ talents taking center stage. While he is certainly not an elite defensive end, he is an above-average starter whose importance to the success of the Bengals’ defense is much greater than most know. Johnson finished second on the team in sacks last season, with 11.5, just one behind Atkins’ total of 12.5. Johnson hit the quarterback eight times (outside of his sacks) and rushed him 34 times on the season. Even though both of those numbers rank him third behind Atkins and fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap, Johnson’s overall level of play is much greater than the pass-rushing specialist Dunlap.
According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson was the fifth best player on the Bengals’ defense and finished the season with a 10.4 overall grade. He played the most snaps of any defensive lineman and was a stout run defender. Even though the Bengals have Wallace Gilberry, Carlos Dunlap and Jamaal Anderson on the roster also, none of those players are legitimate options to replace Johnson’s workload and consistency. Even though they have plenty of options to explore, whether they be in the draft or with other free agents, the Bengals would likely prefer to bring back someone they are familiar with, instead of risking more inconsistency upfront.
Johnson is just 25 years of age and only became a full-time starter during this past season, the final year of his rookie contract. The potential for him to improve in the future is enough to make him a worthwhile investment, especially considering what he has already proven on the field.
The issue with Johnson becomes his salary. Because his consistency comes over a limited sample size, the Bengals would be forgiven if they are somewhat hesitant to guarantee him big money. He won’t get the type of money Mario Williams received last off-season (not even close), but would still be a hot property for certain teams on the open market. The Bengals would like to give him a deal similar to that of Jason Jones, who received a one-year deal with a $4.5 million salary last off-season. Jones is a different type of player to Johnson in that he is a hybrid defensive end and defensive tackle, but was coming off a season when he played end almost exclusively. Instead of signing Johnson to a one-year deal, the Bengals would also prefer to tie him down for the long term. That offers them some flexibility when it comes to signing bonuses and guaranteed money that can offset the cap hit.
Instead of giving Johnson a one-year deal worth $4.5 million, they would likely offer him something close to a $20 million deal over four years with $5 million guaranteed. That kind of contract should be enough to tempt Johnson from testing the free agent market, while also making him an affordable long-term starter for the Bengals’ defense.
Should Johnson find his way to the open market, the Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Oakland Raiders could all potentially have interest in signing him.