Wanting Michael Johnson to remain a Bengal is as easy as wanting steak. He has the size, the speed, the strength and--as of last year--the stats. What's not to like? He is the kind of player that helps win games. Meaningful games. The kind of player that gets paid. Handsomely.
While the team has ensured that Johnson will help them find a long-awaited post-season success this year, his long-term future with the club is far from guaranteed. There are several questions that need answers to resolve that issue.
How heavily is the team willing to invest in the defensive line? They are unquestionably the best unit on the squad, and a key component to the team's success over the past two seasons. Now that guys are coming to the end of their rookie contracts, it is going take money (and plenty of it) to keep the unit together.
As one of the premier defensive tackles right now, Geno Atkins could command around $10 million per year when the Bengals look to extend him in a few of months. Carlos Dunlap won't command quite as much, but he will come closer to Andre Smith's target number than Smith has. With the franchise tag, Johnson will pull down nearly $11.2 million, although the team could lower that number by signing him to a longer contract. Still, that is the better part of $30M on three players.
With the rest of the unit costing nearly $10 million more, will the team drop over 30 percent of the salary cap on the defensive line?
Will Johnson repeat his 2012 performance? The specter of the huge contract given to Robert Geathers after his contract year might be haunting Johnson. Can we really blame the team that much for wanting to make sure he is not a one-hit wonder before investing for the long term?
He may not match 11.5 sacks, but I see no reason to believe that he will not be a significant contributor in 2013. (Surely we didn't say the same thing about Geathers in 2006, did we?) With the Bengals having cap room, putting the sports car through an extra lap on the test track makes sense.
Who is more important, Johnson or Dunlap? We have documented that while Carlos Dunlap has not gotten the sacks, he generates quarterback pressure at a terrific rate. He is the anvil against which the hammers of Atkins and Johnson strike. Together they are a formidable trio.
What happens if the front office decides that they cannot afford all three guys? Assuming Andy Dalton has a good year, he and A.J. Green could cost $20 million per year or more to lock up. They are already planning to roll about $10 million in cap space into next year to help with that, and that is almost enough to deal with what Green alone could cost. Who would get the heave-ho?
If the Bengals' history of letting franchise tagged players walk is an indicator, Johnson would be the man getting the boot. I think maybe I will start stocking up on torches and pitchforks. Should that happen, I could set up a stand outside of PBS and make a killing selling them to you all next year.