One of the biggest topics of discussion for fans of the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason has been the salary cap, and more specifically, the room they have under it. Keeping the team strong for another playoff run while saving enough money to re-sign Geno Atkins, AJ Green and Andy Dalton has proved to be a touchy subject, and the source of many arguments, and seems to be a source of concern for the team’s front office as well. Building the team through the draft has been the mantra for the Bengals and it has been very successful, allowing the team to get better without doling huge contracts in free agency. The downside is the players from those great drafts are coming due for big contracts of their own, leaving Cincinnati with some decisions to make.
With Green, Atkins and Dalton all due for big raises, one of the most difficult choices could be at defensive end, where Michael Johnson will once again be a free agent, joined by counterpart Carlos Dunlap. Johnson is currently under the franchise tag, which will pay him around $11 million. Dunlap is in the last year of his contract, and makes just over $600,000 in 2013. With the other players set to make big bucks, it’s unlikely that the Bengals can afford to sign both guys to the kinds of deals they will command if they once again have good years. The question is, which one would they keep?
Dunlap is a former second round pick, who burst on the scene in the latter part of his rookie season. After not playing at all in the first five games, he recorded nine and a half sacks the rest of the way. Since then, when he’s been healthy, he’s been a disruptive force, even though he hasn’t achieved the same sack totals. He’s a naturally gifted athlete with ideal size for the position, and a nice combination of speed and strength. He’s also been consistently productive over his three years in the league, something Johnson can’t say. The drawback for him is injuries. Several nagging injuries have limited Dunlap’s time on the field, forcing him miss time in each of his seasons. If the Bengals sign him to a huge contract, they’re going to need him in the lineup on a weekly basis.
Johnson was taken in the third round and came in as an athlete as much as a DE. In his first few seasons, his speed allowed him to make some plays, but he was unable to be steady enough to play major minutes. After adding some weight, and with some hard work, he began to put things together, notching six sacks in 2011 before exploding for 11 1/2 last year. The question mark with Johnson lies in whether he can put up numbers like that year in and year out. One big advantage he has over Dunlap is his health. Through four seasons, he hasn’t missed a game.
The Bengals, of course, have an entire season to make a decision if they choose. This would allow them to further evaluate the health of Dunlap and the consistency of Johnson. They have also talked to both players about signing an extension early as well, so it could be a matter of which one decides to go ahead and get it done. Either way, the Bengals will probably go into 2014 with only one of them. Fans will have to stay tuned to see who only has one more year in stripes.