Take your starting defensive end, avoid messy contract arguments by shipping him away for a year, then welcome him back with a reasonable deal. Add an extra third round compensatory pick during the draft to boost and you could be the GM for the Cincinnati Bengals. This is basically what happened when the Bengals parted ways with Michael Johnson and then reunited with him this offseason. Now the DE, who we all hope will pick up where he left off with the Bengals, is penciled in as an every-down player for the coming season.
As a Bengal:
Michael Johnson was an every-down contributor for the Bengals during the 2012 and 2013 seasons. In that span he had 18 sacks, 25 hurries and 75 Qb hits. Those are strong numbers that placed him in the top 10 of NFL defensive ends. So strong in fact, he was able to command a large deal from Tampa Bay in free agency following the 2013 season.
The Bengals felt they had a steal in the 2009 NFL draft when Johnson fell from some lofty first round projections into the third round. Marvin Lewis once was quoted saying Johnson was one of the best pass rushers he ever coached. Experts from all around the NFL talked about his physical abilities and potential, two phrases that often accompany a player perceived as raw and a crap shoot. The Bengals took a gamble and it paid off.
In 2012 Johnson finished the season with 52 tackles and 11.5 sacks. He also accounted for many quarterback pressures and with his wing span he was able to bat balls down at the line of scrimmage. He also recorded a fumble and an interception. Johnson was approaching a contract situation and was tagged with a non-exclusive franchise tag. It seemed the Bengals wanted to keep the talent around but didn’t want to overpay for a player who seemed to be a good fit in the defensive line rotation.
Johnson was such a good fit that he improved the play of others around him. Wallace Gilberry had his statistically best season when he was able to play situational football in the rotation. In the 2013 season, Gilberry recorded 7.5 sacks and one QB pressure per 13 snaps. In the season following Johnson’s departure, Gilberry only had 1.5 sacks and 1 pressure per almost 17 snaps.
As a Buccaneer:
Johnson left the Bengals in free agency for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he signed a five-year $43.98 million contract. In his only season with the Buccaneers, Johnson struggled to stay healthy. He recorded only 27 tackles and 4 sacks. The Tampa brass and fanbase was weary they had overpaid for a guy who would not work in their system. Tampa decided to cut their losses one season into the deal and dropped Johnson in March prior to the start of free agency.
Back to the Bengals:
The Bengals got a price cut compared to the deal they would have had to make to keep Johnson from leaving the prior season. For a four-year, $24 million deal, the Bengals had their player back on the roster. Johnson also will receive $7 million from the deal he the guaranteed money left on his Tampa Bay contract this year.
On top of that, the Bengals received a 3rd round compensatory pick for losing Johnson the previous season. One of the biggest drivers for Johnson returning to Cincinnati was the friendships he made. "I really learned a lot about myself, about what makes me happy and how important just being happy is to overall health," Johnson said. "Relationships are important to me."
The thought is that Johnson is so familiar with the players and coaches that he can step in and pick up where he left off with the Bengals in 2013. There is truth to this possibility. While Johnson may not have played under the guidance of Paul Guenther, he is familiar with the defensive coordinator. Guenther runs a defense similar to what Mike Zimmer built in Cincinnati and Guenther was here when Johnson suited up in stripes. The familiarity is there and that’s associated with chemistry.
The defensive line hopes to relive the dominance it showed when Johnson was last on this roster. In theory, the Bengals picked up a player who has proven he can be a disruptive force in this scheme. He is paired with familiar players like Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Wallace Gilberry. If the rotation stays healthy, I see a formidable group that opposing offensive lines will not want to face.
The last motivator for Johnson has to be his performance in Tampa Bay. No one wants to be remembered as a regret and as of right now, the NFL at large views Johnson from his latest performance. Johnson is eager to prove he is still a force in the NFL and is back with the team that allowed him to become a top 10 defensive end.