Since Michael Johnson was selected No. 70 overall during the 2009 NFL draft, he's visibly expanded his game. Predraft analysis targeted Johnson's weaknesses with an inconsistent motor, mediocre run defender, perhaps better suited as a 3-4 linebacker, and needs more strength in his upper-body. Yet it was hard to ignore his potential, athleticism, leverage, and overall tools.
Over the past three years, Johnson's production has exponentially improved. From the 2.5 quarterback sacks and 35 tackles in 2010 to Johnson's career-marks that he set last season with 11.5 sacks, and 52 tackles. Johnson also generated an interception in his second straight season. Last year was the first season that Johnson scored a positive Pro Football Focus grade against the run. It ranked second on the Bengals, behind defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Rather than allowing Johnson to become a free agent this year, the Bengals slapped the franchise tag on him with a guaranteed one-year tender worth $11.175 million. After some negotiations during the final hour before last week's deadline that would have sealed Johnson's future in Cincinnati, the fifth-year defensive end will play under the franchise tag in 2013.
WHY HE RANKED HERE:
Much like Geno Atkins or A.J. Green, Johnson's ceiling continues to expand with a big flashing green arrow affixed to his name. We've had questions in the past about his overall production in relation to the number of snaps he takes part in (aka, slowing down due to being overused), but those concerns were held in check. Instead, Johnson had his best season as a rusher and run defender. If not for Geno Atkins dominating every conversation on defense, Johnson would easily have an argument as best defensive player with the Bengals.
WHY HE SHOULDN'T BE RANKED HERE:
One could probably argue that Johnson isn't even the best defensive end on the team this year, citing Carlos Dunlap's production. Yet while Dunlap has the most natural talent, Johnson is becoming the blue-collar type who has spent the last two offseasons redefining his body (adding weight, increasing flexibility), which is enhancing his game.
However, the greatest concern heading into 2013 is whether or not 2012 was more of a fluke. Many of his sacks were the result of other rushers rattling the opposing quarterback out of the pocket for Johnson to clean up the mess. Additionally, one may question his production in relation to the game's biggest moments. Over 40 percent of his career sacks have come in the first quarter and only 4.5 career sacks in the fourth.
Worse yet is that he's had virtually no presence during Cincinnati's playoff games in 2011 and 2012 (no sacks, pressures, or hits on the quarterback).
Johnson set career marks across the board in 2012. Was it an aberration or a preview of something greater?
Unable to answer that question themselves, the Bengals placed the franchise tag with a team-friendly extension on the table. It's a big year for Johnson's future. By repeating that production in 2012, he finds himself as one of the most sought-after free agents next year. Failure to do so and he could actually regret signing the extension that Cincinnati offered prior to the deadline.
Based on his increasing production dating back to 2010, Johnson figures to be an extremely productive, and critical, component for Cincinnati's postseason run in 2013... and hopefully he actually shows up for that postseason.