The Cincinnati Bengals put everything on hold during their free agency when they learned that old friend Michael Johnson had become available just a couple of days into the frenzy. They quickly got him back to the Queen City, and likely wined and dined him, as Johnson signed a four-year deal to reunite with the club.
Some were a little worried when Johnson was courted heavily by Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings, but it's clear that Johnson wanted to go back to the team that drafted him. Unfortunately for Zim and the Vikes, when a player has multiple free agency visits scheduled, that first team usually loses out on the player. Heck, Bengals fans know that all too well.
Even though the numbers have yet to be officially announced, there are a few things that make this deal absolutely brilliant. Some are obvious, and some are not. Let's have a look.
Having Their Cake And Eating It Too:
Remember when the Bengals traded their young defensive tackle Orien Harris to the St. Louis Rams for their running back named Brian Leonard in 2009? Though "Leapin' Leonard" wasn't anything more than a backup running back for CIncinnati, he became a fan favorite because of his knack for making clutch plays and his signature high-hurdle move.
What some don't remember about that trade is the fact that the Rams ended up releasing Harris mid-season and the Bengals picked him back up while still allowing Leonard to contribute. In essence, the Bengals took away a relatively productive player away from the Rams and that was that. A similar type of scenario is occurring with the Johnson signing, per Bengals beat writers.
Funny aspect: Bengals will get a third round compensatory pick this year for losing MJ, even as he's back on team.— Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) March 15, 2015
It's been made somewhat clear over the years by Bengals management that they value those compensatory picks--particularly when their focus has re-shifted to the draft in recent years. It's not a bad strategy in some ways, as it avoids overpaying for your own when free agency hits and supplies a band-aid for the departure. It does get frustrating though when the team uses this as a crutch for the reasoning of the inactivity in free agency.
With Johnson's return, the Bengals will get ample compensation while also getting the guy they wanted back. Keep in mind that this will be confirmed at the NFL meetings later this spring so that third round designation could change, but we're inclined to believe Dehner, with his good pulse on the team and the league.
An Intact Line For Years To Come:
With Johnson gone and Geno Atkins recovering from a knee injury all of 2014, the Bengals defensive line was one of the worst in football. Their trademark style of stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback was gone, so they were forced to become creative to get their 10.5 wins on the season. While Johnson isn't a "great" player, he is a good one that will allow the line to feed off of each others' skill sets once again in 2015.
The wise sage that is Cincy Jungle's Josh Kirkendall, made a note on the Johnson signing that the three of the four projected starters (Johnson, Atkins, Carlos Dunlap) are all signed for the next four years. Cincinnati will likely look at defensive tackle in the first couple of rounds in the draft this year, so add another talented guy that will be signed for that term with those others. They also have Will Clarke and Margus Hunt under contract through 2016.
Now the #Bengals have Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson all secured to contracts through the 2018 season.— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) March 15, 2015
Per The St. Paul Pioneer Press, early reports have Johnson's deal with the Bengals for four years and $24 million--obviously averaging $6 million per year. He signed a five-year, $43.75 million contract, which bordered on $9 million per year, on average with Tampa Bay last season, which put the Bengals out of the running a year ago. With Johnson still receiving $7 million from Tampa Bay just to not play for them in 2015, it's very likely that Johnson was a little more flexible on the dollars just one year later. Some would call that using his heart (2015 free agency) over his head (2014 free agency).
Though it hurt with his vacancy last season, the Bengals were only without him for a year and got him back on a deal that is paying $1.75 million less per year on average. Though criticism still exists for letting him walk last year, it's clear that the Bucs overpaid to acquire Johnson.
The Return Of A Quality Guy To An Already Stable Locker Room:
Since the string of player arrests that the Bengals endured in the mid-2000s, the team has made a concerted effort to bring in players of higher character (Hear that, national media? That's the sound of your current perceptions from nearly a decade ago being shattered). Johnson is of that ilk, given his personality and multiple charitable endeavors off of the field in the Cincinnati area.
There has been some fan criticism for keeping lesser-talented/declining on-the-field players too long because of their leadership impact. Johnson is both a talented guy, a leader and a beloved figure with the Bengals. His teammates love him, as evidenced from their social media accounts. The coaches love him, so much that his former defensive coordinator, now a head coach in Minnesota, told him to not get on to the plane to Cincinnati. And, the community loves him for the aforementioned generosity.
The Bengals may not have grabbed themselves a perennial Pro Bowler and may have essentially closed up shop on free agency with the Johnson deal, but they got a talented guy to make them better upfront and a guy who loves playing here, which is a stark contrast from the Bengals of yesteryear.