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Is Waiting on Michael Johnson the Right Choice for the Bengals?

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Aug 16, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Michael Johnson (90) reacts after he recovered a fumble during the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to release former Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, the team decided to stall its momentum towards signing lionized free agent Nick Fairley.  After triggering much excitement from fans who’ve long sought some effort from the team in free agency, the news that the Bengals are putting “the brakes” on Nick Fairley‘s acquisition naturally led to consternation within much of the fan base.  Given the justifiable feeling of dismay, one must still consider whether the team’s choice to evaluate their ability to reacquire their former defensive end is the right one.  So, is it?

Michael Johnson‘s exit from Cincinnati didn’t go as planned.  Even before his disastrous 2014 campaign was over, Johnson found himself landing on some rather unflattering lists.  He was often hurt and evidently struggled to acclimate himself properly to his new defensive scheme.  After such a campaign, one must assume Johnson will spend at least the 2015 season getting his career back on track.  And what better place is there to do so, especially for Johnson, than Cincinnati.

The Bengals have successfully helped reclaim several players’ careers in the past and Michael Johnson could be just the next in this long line of stories.  Furthermore, the likeliness that Johnson would find success in Cincinnati is only increased by the knowledge he already has of the Bengals’ defensive scheme.  Although Paul Guenther now fills the defensive coordinator position, he was a protégé of Mike Zimmer’s, the team’s coordinator while Johnson was in stripes, and was the linebackers coach during Johnson’s Cincinnati tenure.  The familiarity shouldn’t be far off.

More than this, Johnson’s interest is bolstered by the environment that exists in Cincinnati.  In a recent piece by Bengals.com editor Geoff Hobson, he details Johnson’s attachment and endearment for the Bengals’ locker room and defensive line unit.  He even says that Johnson is still on the defensive line’s mass text.  Furthering the point, Johnson’s agent, John Thornton, said the defensive end misses Cincinnati during a radio with ESPN 1530’s Lance McAlister.  Thornton literally said the Bengals and Johnson miss each other, but regardless, it goes to show the affection that both Johnson and his agent have for Cincinnati.

The point here is the Bengals choice to focus on Michael Johnson in lieu of Nick Fairley isn’t a “fool’s errand,” but rather based in the real and informed opportunity that exists to bring back a player who was both highly successful and productive both on and off the field for Cincinnati.

On the flip side of this discussion is what Johnson would do for the team.  Yes, he has the interest to return to Cincinnati both for his professional and personal interests, but does his return bring enough to the Bengals to justify their “about face” with regards to other potential acquisitions.

This question only serves to justify the Bengals’ decision here.  The team needs a right defensive end and Michael Johnson is the epitome of this in the Bengals’ system.  During Johnson’s last two seasons with the Bengals, he played on 1,758 snaps according to Football Outsiders.  This accounts for 82.2% of the defense’s snaps during that span.  While acting as a highly effective run defender, Johnson accumulated 108 combined tackles, 15 sacks (11.5 in 2012), two forced fumbles, and five stuffs.  Although Johnson is a better role player than he is a leader when rushing the passer, he clearly found some measure of success when playing with his Cincinnati teammates.

Johnson’s presence would bring another leader to the locker room while allowing the Bengals’ defensive line to return to form.  Wallace Gilberry could move back to his old rotational role where he proved much more effective while reserve ends Margus Hunt and Will Clarke could continue to “learn the ropes” while contributing in a lesser role.  Johnson’s presence opposite of borderline dominant rusher Carlos Dunlap would give the Bengals, what could prove to be, the league’s deepest group of defensive ends.

Reacquiring Michael Johnson also makes sense when considering the upcoming draft class.  The 2015 NFL draft doesn’t feature a plethora of talented 4-3 defensive ends, but it does by way of defensive tackles.  With the 21st selection, it’s highly likely the Bengals could get a very solid prospect at either the 3-technique or 1-technique position.  This list includes prospects such as Malcom Brown from Texas, Eddie Goldman from FSU, Jordan Phillips from Oklahoma, and Michael Bennett out of fan favorite Ohio State (assuming Danny Shelton is off the board by then). And this isn’t to even mention the options the Bengals would have in later rounds such as Grady Jarrett from Clemson and Marcus Hardison out of ASU.  It seems apparent the Bengals would have options; so prioritizing Michael Johnson is easily justified.

Although fans want to ensure improvement to the roster via free agency, patience must and should be exercised.  Nick Fairley is undoubtedly a talented and exciting player, but, in fairness, he does come with some concerns; personally, I think the Bengals are capable of getting past those, but they, and we as fans, would be remiss to not take these concerns into consideration.  When weighing Fairley versus Johnson based on their performances, a strong argument can be made to favor Johnson.

Although Michael Johnson will have strong suitors other than the Cincinnati Bengals, after reflecting upon Johnson’s clear and present interest in returning to Cincinnati, what he brings to the table for the Bengals, and the upcoming draft class, Cincinnati’s hesitation to sign Nick Fairley is both justified and likely the right move for the team.

Nothing is a given until Michael Johnson signs a contract, but nothing was a given with Nick Fairley either who also has a plethora of suitors.  Going after Michael Johnson seems to be the right move, right now regardless of how frustrating it may be to watch the Bengals possibly miss out on yet another year of potentially beneficial free agents.

Next: A.J. Hawk Returns Home

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