Editor's note: There are a lot more players than five that have something to prove in 2011. In fact, the entire team has something to prove. However, I narrowed down five players that have the most to prove this season and ranked them in order. Here is No. 4.....
Defensive End/Linebacker Michael Johnson
Even though the Bengals' defense is much more established than the offense, there are a few holes in defensive depth chart. Michael Johnson could be used to fill more than one of those holes. He was drafted as a defensive end, but his freak-of-nature athletic ability has also allowed him to take some snaps at outside linebacker, where it was determined that he could become some sort of souped up attack vehicle specializing in searching for quarterbacks and subsequently destroying them.
Unfortunately, injuries to other players held Johnson back from playing outside linebacker in 2010, forcing him to move back to defensive end. That might not be such a terrible thing, though.
Johnson has been kind of meh so far. That's not to say that he's been bad or anything, I'm just saying that he hasn't lived up to the expectations of many Bengals fans so far. That could change in 2011, though.
There's a decent chance that the Bengals may trim some of the fat on their roster to help re-sign some high priority free agents. Some of the fat that could be trimmed could be defensive ends Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom. Carlos Dunlap has pretty much sealed his role as a starter on one side of the defensive line. Leaving one side Geathers and Odom combined for a whopping one sack in 2010 and Odom has had trouble staying on the field, only playing in two games throughout the last two seasons. Also, the two of them combined would soak up $8.45 million of cap space.
If the Bengals decide to let both Geathers and Odom go, Johnson could move to defensive end permanently, where he would play opposite of Dunlap. The two speed rushing defensive ends, given a whole season together, could really wreak some havoc. We could be looking at the defensive ends of the future.
But what happens if the Bengals don't release Geathers or Odom? Well, if that's the case, Johnson wouldn't necessarily be left out. It seems as thought he Bengals aren't going to re-sign middle linebacker Dhani Jones, which means that Rey Maualuga will be moving to the middle, leaving the outside linebacker position open for the taking.
Guess who has done some work at outside linebacker?
With a full season of work, Johnson could be a good outside linebacker. Even if isn't an every-down linebacker, he could come in on obvious passing downs and do some damage as a pass rusher. Either way, I'm sure that Mike Zimmer will find a place on the the field to give Johnson some considerable playing time. If Johnson makes the best of it and shows what he can do, he could be a solid defensive end or linebacker on the Bengals' defense for years to come. If he doesn't, he could find himself replaced by guys like Dontay Moch or Brandon Johnson (if he gets re-signed) in the future.
The top-three Bengals players with the most to prove will be posted tomorrow morning.