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Bengals 2018 salary cap casualty candidate: Defensive lineman Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson has had a solid career, but might he be cut in an effort to create more cap space?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

“Breaking up is hard to do”, as they say.

Running an NFL team is a balance of making tough business decisions, while also caring for players who have helped your squad. Professional football can be cutthroat, but these are the livelihoods of men and their families.

Declining play and expensive contracts, players who present problems off of the field, or can’t get out of the trainer’s room are all issues teams face. They also have to ask themselves if keeping certain players is worth the amount of dollars being doled out for their production.

The Bengals don’t usually have salary cap issues and Mike Brown’s recent comments have us believing that the team won’t be very active in outside free agency once again this offseason. Because of that, we’re not sure that the team will shed certain salaries, but we’ll see.

Michael Johnson has been a valuable veteran on the Bengals’ defense. He’s been an edge player for many of the teams’ better defensive units in their franchise history. Still, he’s set to make a solid chunk of change this year and the Bengals have some exciting young guns ready to take a bigger role.

Financial figures:

2018 salary: $6,112,500

2018 cap hit: $6,112,500

2018 dead cap number: $1.125 million

Why it makes sense to release him:

Emergence of Carl Lawson and Chris Smith: Lawson might have been the steal of the draft, given his 8.5 sacks and his fourth round designation. Smith was also a nice, low-risk get for the Bengals, as he added three sacks and two defended passes in a rotational role.

Lawson is deserving of an increased role and we’re excited to see what he can do with that, while the team could re-sign Smith and grab another edge rusher in this year’s draft. A injection of youth could be in the plans, as Carlos Dunlap is also entering his ninth year.

A lack of big stats for five straight years: Johnson had a breakout year in 2012, racking up 11.5 sacks. He was franchise tagged in 2013 and then left for Tampa Bay in free agency in 2014.

Yet, even with all of his hefty contracts, Johnson has only notched 21 quarterback sacks from 2013-2017. As he is entering his 10th season and will be turning 31 years old on February 7th, it’s hard to imagine more breakout years are on their way.

Why he should stick around:

What if Smith leaves in free agency?: After trading for him this offseason, the Bengals grabbed a valuable rotational player on defense. The problem? They inherited Smith in the final year of his rookie deal.

After one of his most productive seasons as a pro with limited snaps, Smith is set to hit the open market. Cincinnati will work to re-sign him, but it’s not a sure thing he’ll be back in 2018. If he bails, the Bengals will have a hole at the edge rusher spot.

A new, productive niche: While Johnson has struggled to get high numbers in the quarterback sack column, the coaches found a new way to use him in 2017. Though Lawson cut into Johnson’s defensive snaps, Johnson kicked inside on occasion and found success.

Common sense would point to Lawson having even more defensive snaps next season, given his 8.5 sacks as a rookie, so keeping Johnson in this creative role should continue to help the defense. And, even if he isn’t getting to the quarterback from the inside, his incredible length still provides value by batting down passes.

Great guy and great locker room presence: Sometimes being a leader and a guy other young players can look up to is worth hanging on to—even if the stats don’t necessarily warrant the contract. Johnson was a Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee in 2017 and does a ton of charitable work.

He’s also never been in trouble off of the field and seems to be extremely well-liked by his teammates. Yes, there have been examples of Marvin Lewis and Mike Brown hanging on to players longer than they should have (Robert Geathers, anyone?), but Johnson still brings value beyond the field.