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Possible Breakout Player of 2011: Bengals Defensive End/Linebacker Michael Johnson

There are a lot of young Bengals players that could be poised to have a breakout season in 2011. Rey Maualuga could be moving to middle linebacker, where he belongs, and could have a huge season. Josh mentioned that Bernard Scott could benefit from Jay Gruden's new West Coast Offense and have a huge year. 

There are a lot more: Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley (if you say they didn't break out in 2010), Jerome Simpson, Paul thinks it's Geno Atkins' year, and, dare I say... Andre Smith?

As for me, I'm going to go with Michael Johnson. He's been bounced around from defensive end, to linebacker and back again, but has never really come into his own in the NFL. However, I truly believe that 2011 could be his year.

Here's why.

When Johnson was drafted in 2009 in the third round, many called the pick a steal based on his freakish athletic ability. See, when I say freakish athletic ability, I'm pointing out the fact that Johnson is 6-7, weighs 270 lbs and still has the ability to 4.75 second 40-yard dash.

So basically, he's a pterodactyl in football pads.

What people weren't so sure about was his motor. When he was drafted, Josh quoted Mocking Dan, who said:

Motor has been inconsistent throughout his career. Still has a ways to go against the run. Possesses the frame of a basketball player, which he was in high school. Susceptible to cut blocks. Some speculate he should move to outside linebacker for 3-4 team, but he might be too much of a project in that role. Good strength, but could get stronger in his torso.

Still, Johnson was looked at as a player with endless possibilities.

In his first season with the team, he played in all 16 games, accumulating 17 tackles and three sacks. Like Dunlap's rookie year, Johnson didn't start in any games. His rookie season ended with the Bengals going to the playoffs and Bengals fans excited about what Johnson could do in his second season.

Then we heard the news that he was moving to outside linebacker and everybody got excited. Especially defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who said:

"I really, really like him just as a football player. He's improved tremendously. He's doing some terrific things. I'm expecting him to have a dang good year," Zimmer said.

After working Johnson with the linebackers all spring, Zimmer calls Johnson's pass coverage "excellent," and doesn't stop at playing him at SAM on first down or rush end on third down. He believes Johnson could play end on first down as well as play the other two backer spots.

That allows the Bengals to disrupt pass protections by alignment.

"It puts five linemen on the field and the offense has to decide if they're going to block him with a back or a tackle," Zimmer said. "That's five-on-five. And that opens it up for people beyond that."

Unfortunately, a combination of injuries and suspensions moved Johnson back to defensive end, where he started the final 10 games of the season, this time racking up 34 tackles, 2.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and knocked 275 (actually it was 4) passes down at the line of scrimmage.. because of his pterodactyl wings.

I don't many would say that Johnson's career thus far is a disappointment, but I also don't think many would say it's been a great success either. But, I truly think that will change in 2011 because of the potential roster moves the Bengals could make.

If the Bengals decide not to re-sign Dhani Jones, I believe that Michael Johnson could take the SAM linebacker position that was filled by Rey Maualuga, who would be moving to middle linebacker, last season. From that position, Johnson could be a quarterback nightmare. He would have great angles to rush the quarterback in obvious passing situations and even if he didn't get to the quarterback before the ball is thrown, I'd be willing to bet that the pass would be rushed or dumped down for a short gain. His presence at outside linebacker in obvious passing situations could free up Dunlap and the other defensive linemen to sneak through the offensive line.

But let's say that the Bengals do re-sign Dhani Jones. Johnson would take Maualuga's spot at outside linebacker, but he could take the other defensive end spot.

When it comes down to it, the Bengals have some fairly specific, and expensive needs once free agency opens. By cutting the $8.45 million owed to Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers, moving Johnson to defensive end opposite of Dunlap, the Bengals could use the money saved to re-sign guys like Cedric Benson and Johnathan Joseph. From the defensive end position, Johnson could work hand-in-hand with guys like Geno Atkins and Dunlap on quarterback search and destroy missions. That could also free up the outside linebacker spot for newly drafted Dontay Moch on obvious passing downs.

Johnson could potentially play at either the linebacker or defensive end position in 2011. It's not really that hard to see either scenarios play out. And, I truly believe, that from either of these positions, Johnson is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. 

I mean, just look at the picture above. Philip Rivers has no idea what's about to happen. We could see that a lot this season.