One of the Bengals’ worst performers in 2016 was Michael Johnson, the 29-year old defensive end who ranked at the bottom of almost every single ranking at his position.
Fans and media seem to agree that a true impact pass rusher must be added early in the draft, so it might be time to rethink Johnson’s role with the team. Drafted in the third round of the 2009 draft when many had a first-round grade on him, Johnson switched to linebacker in 2010 under Mike Zimmer but went back again to the defensive line.
A freak athlete coming out of college, Johnson was considered able to handle both positions: 4-3 end and 3-4 outside linebacker. As the Bengals were flirting with many 3-4 looks in those days, Johnson's versatility came in handy. We know now that he stuck to end and paired with Carlos Dunlap to form one of the more impressive pass-rushing duos in the NFL before getting a mega-deal from the Buccaneers. Still a stud against the run, his failure to produce in the rushing category made him a bust in Florida and came back to Cincinnati in 2015, where he's been a shadow of his former self.
The Bengals need talent upfront to make their defense dominant again, and so, the addition of an edge rusher to complement Dunlap seems inevitable. Johnson played in more than 75% of the snaps in 2016, just about the same amount as the previous year.
With Will Clarke and Margus Hunt unable to develop as consistent contributors, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther didn’t have much of a choice, despite Johnson’s ineffectiveness. Other than Dunlap, no Bengals defensive end was safe from criticism, but the former Georgia Tech product was painful to watch.
Both ProFootballFocus.com and The Bleacher Report NFL 1000 rankings had him as one of the worst in the entire league at the position.
Can a move back to the SAM position save Johnson’s career in Cincy? He’s still under contract for two more years and despite some cash saved if released, the Bengals would be reluctant to incur in dead money, so he’s probably here to stay at least for the foreseeable future.
What they can do is play him sparingly as their third linebacker and that way, save themselves from signing yet another veteran on their wrong side of 30, like A.J. Hawk or James Harrison. Whatever Harrison’s done after going back to Pittsburgh is amazing considering he looked washed in Cincy. But he’s actually a good example of how the team sees the SAM position, given how their base defense is nickel nowadays and that third linebacker only sees the field in clear running situations.
Johnson's size, while outstanding when he was young and a freak athlete, is hurting him these days. At 6-7, he can still bat passes at the line of scrimmage, but he cannot turn the corner on a tackle anymore. His first step is not what it was back in the days and other than his ability to swat the blocker's hands with his long and strong arms he doesn't have many moves. What he can still do is drop into coverage a little bit, even if he would drop a sure interception - as has been the case this season, while attacking the ball and making sure tackles on a running back. At 15 snaps a game, the Bengals wouldn't need to worry about his stamina playing standing up, and could strengthen their run defense with an in-house solution.
CincyJungle readers are wary of this possibility and clearly told me in the comments section whenever I proposed it, but if Johnson is going to stick with the team, you don't want him to steal snaps for, hopefully, the standout pass-rusher they draft in the spring. He can't play defensive end anymore it seems, but he still has the tools to help the team at a position where they could actually use some help. This season, they added Karlos Dansby as insurance while Vontaze Burfict was out due to a suspension, with the idea of moving the veteran to SAM later. Dansby should be gone in the winter, and Rey Maualuga could be cut, but they wouldn't likely move him out of the middle.
Playing on the strongside doesn't mean Johnson would only have to cover tight ends or fight the lead blockers. The Bengals could even mix in the LEO position and have him be an extra outside rusher. Johnson can do a little of all that, or at least there's upside to it, while there's none if he remains as a full-time end.
I don't honestly believe Cincinnati is going to move Johnson to SAM, not even partially, but I do believe it would be a good thing to look into as it could get some more juice out of him while saving the Bengals from adding another veteran linebacker to play a few downs per game.
With no superior speed nor quickness, and without the ability to bend and turn the corner due to his size, Johnson will increasingly have trouble to get home when passing the rusher. If the Bengals keep him, they can't afford to field another defensive lineman that gets no penetration. Thus, a move to linebacker while also giving the other ends some rest, could be the ideal solution.