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Football Outsiders: Bengals Michael Johnson One Of Five Must-Tag Players In The NFL

The Cincinnati Bengals have decisions to make with their free agents, and it all starts with how they'll use the franchise tag.

Andy Lyons

Who should the Cincinnati Bengals franchise?

It's a question that will provide the earliest answer compared to the primary offseason storylines, preceding free agency and the NFL draft. The deadline for teams to franchise players is March 4, just over two weeks away.

With two primary free agents that Cincinnati would like to keep, the biggest question right now is who will the Bengals franchise if an extension isn't worked out with both? Pro Football Focus made an argument for Andre Smith, who will one way or another be paid over $9 million per season, based on projected market value.

Rivers McCown with Football Outsiders (via ESPN In$ider), suggests Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson.

While Geno Atkins deservedly got most of the hype for Cincinnati's massive defensive improvement over the second half of the season, Johnson was also an integral part of the renaissance. He leapt from 6.0 sacks in 2011 to 11.5 in 2012, a number he supplemented with eight quarterback hits and 13 hurries. Johnson's length and leverage was also a factor in the running game, and his lengthy frame makes him a perennial threat to bat down passes at the line at a high rate. The defensive end tag is steep at nearly $11 million, but the Bengals have so much cap space that they could use the tag as leverage to work towards an extension. With Atkins, Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals have an impressive front line worth keeping together.

An argument of hesitation with Johnson is the "contract year" scenario, where defensive end production tends to surge during contract years. Before his 11.5-sack season, Johnson was adequately productive, but it was a process that climaxed during a contract year. Is Johnson of 2012 a preview of things to come or the product of a contract year?

We use Antwan Odom as an example, when one good year inflated his overall market value, which he never repaid to Cincinnati in terms of production. That being said Johnson isn't Odom and contract year arguments tend to only support the arguers point with the availability of plenty counterpoints.