The Bengals have at least 11 starters and key players that will be hitting free agency, whenever the Collective Bargaining Agreement finally puts behind the dark offseason we're bound to face. The highest profile players with expiring contracts, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and running back Cedric Benson, have been brought up many times with plenty of debates arguing for or against their return (mostly because of cash). Cincinnati could use the franchise tag, and we half-expect them to use it on Joseph, on either player before the owners lock out the players at midnight on March 4.
However there's another player that the Bengals need to bring back for 2011, if not signed to a long-term contract.
Brandon Johnson, having played for the Bengals for three seasons, brings versatility, strength against the pass and quality production on special teams. Along with posting nine special teams tackles in 2010, Johnson backs up virtually every linebacker position. Pro Football Focus rates Johnson as the team's third best linebacker, behind Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers and with limited playing time (due to not having much of a role on 4-3 base formations), Johnson still finished with 57 tackles. And the linebacker has never missed a game with the Bengals.
Johnson led the team with 12 tackles during Cincinnati's 15-10 win over the Baltimore Ravens, including a fourth quarter interception of Joe Flacco. The six-year pro started against the Indianapolis Colts, posting five tackles and a shared sack of Peyton Manning. Johnson recorded 15 stops (considered a quarterback sack or an offensive failure) and was one of four Bengals to record at least a shared sack and an interception in 2010 (Rey Maualuga, Chinedum Ndukwe and Roy Williams).
As of this posting, the Bengals will have a roster of Maualuga, Rivers, Roddrick Muckelroy and Vincent Rey are the only linebackers signed for 2011. We expect the Bengals to reach out and try to sign Dhani Jones because there's been no indication from the coaching staff through 2010 that the team is comfortable moving Maualuga inside. Think about it. Jones was voted as a defensive captain, he finished with 160 tackles in 2010 and is often praised by Mike Zimmer for getting players in position and, for the lack of better terms, being an extension of the coaching staff on the field. While Jones' pass coverage was often a detriment and many of his tackles were well after a positive gain by the offense, the team still felt that Maualuga wasn't ready to move to the middle.
Now there's reason to believe that Johnson might leave Cincinnati for an opportunity to start with another team. It's not that he dislikes the Bengals. But Johnson has enough talent to be a starter in this league and if you have an NFL player that doesn't want to be a starter, then what's the point in having him on the team? Most likely, the Bengals would have to pay more than they're willing to pay for a backup linebacker that (mostly) plays exclusively on passing downs. Paying backup players is hardly an attribute favored by Mike Brown and the Bengals front office.
Even so. The Bengals could be faced with lacking depth at linebacker and Johnson is exactly the type of player that improves a team's depth chart. The Bengals need to bring him back, if not signing him to a long-term extension.