Michael Johnson had a breakout season in 2012.
The Cincinnati Bengals have 22 unrestricted free agents as they head into the offseason. Many of these players make up the backbone of this team that has now made the playoffs in two consecutive years.
With the free-agency period beginning in short order, there are several key names that are on this list that should be back in Cincinnati next season with new contracts.
Bengals owner Mike Brown has been known to pinch his pennies when it comes to spending in free agency, but certain players simply cannot be overlooked.
What the Bengals do need to watch out for, however, is leaving enough room to renegotiate deals with current players that have expiring contracts within the next year.
One prime example is Geno Atkins, the Bengals' Pro Bowl defensive tackle. He will become a free agent in 2014 and it is imperative to re-sign him before his current contract expires.
So, without further delay, let's break down the top five Bengals free agents that should stay in Cincinnati for at least one more season.
Kevin Huber has his most solid season as a professional in 2012.
A punter? Yes. Bengals punter Kevin Huber should most certainly be re-signed over many of the teams' other free agents heading into 2013.
In 2012, Huber absolutely broke out from the mixed bag that he had given the team in prior seasons.
Instead of inconsistency, Huber finally showed what he is capable of when he can put it all together. Punters in the AFC North are especially important as many of these games are determined by field position.
Last season, Huber averaged 46.6 yards per attempt while downing 33 balls inside of the 20-yard line compared to only seven touchbacks. His hang time also greatly improved, which led to his highest net total ever of 42 yards.
Aside from touchbacks, all of these numbers were career highs for Huber.
It will certainly be worthwhile giving him a multi-year deal to allow him to prove that he can continue this trend on a consistent basis. His contract would not break the bank by any stretch, so it is crucial to get this deal done.
Josh Brown was just about perfect since joining the Bengals late in the 2012 season.
There seems to be a small trend going here in the special teams department. That just goes to show exactly how important this part of the game is to a football team.
Josh Brown came into Cincinnati during its last four regular-season games and one postseason game. In that span, Brown was nearly perfect while connecting on 11-of-12 field goals with a long of 52 yards.
His only miss came in tough conditions against the Pittsburgh Steelers when he booted a 56-yard try.
The man that Brown came in to replace, injured kicker Mike Nugent, was sub-par in his 12 games last season. Nugent only connected on 19-of-23 attempts.
With Nugent also a free agent going into 2013, the Bengals need to take a look at the hot hand (or foot) at the moment. That goes to Brown in a landslide.
A clutch kicker can sometimes be a better part of a team's offense and Brown has molded himself into that role since putting on a Bengals uniform.
Like Huber, Brown's contract would be minimal dollar-wise and would sure up kicking responsibilities while leaving plenty of cap room available for other signings.
Thomas Howard leads this young linebacker corps with veteran experience.
Howard was easily the most versatile linebacker on the defense and is a constant threat in both the running game and in coverage.
In 2011 Howard finished with 99 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles and four passes defensed. Not only was he productive, but he was able to provide guidance to the younger linebackers.
Unfortunately, Howard's 2012 campaign was cut short just after one game.
With other Bengals linebackers also free agents in 2013 (Manny Lawson, Dan Skuta and Rey Maualuga) this team will be left with a very inexperienced squad. This makes a re-signing of Howard all that more important.
If he is able to come back healthy, he can again be a huge contributor and also mentor these young linebackers on the Cincinnati roster.
Howard will not demand a high-priced contract, so it will yet again be beneficial for the Bengals to bring him back while leaving a good amount of cap space available.
Michael Johnson finally reached his potential in 2012 and became a feared defensive end.
Michael Johnson has his best season as a professional by far in 2012 as he amassed 11.5 sacks over 16 games played.
Adding to his 2012 totals are also 52 tackles, two passes defensed and one interception. These kinds of numbers are very hard to overlook when evaluating NFL talent.
This is also where his re-signing can be a little tricky.
Johnson put up elite numbers in his contract year, which means that he will be looking for top dollar at his position in his next contract.
The Bengals utilize a rotation up front on the defensive line and have other pass-rushers that can step in and contribute for a lesser price tag.
However, the production that Johnson showed he was capable of in 2012 makes this a very intriguing re-signing. Without Johnson in the rotation, the overall productivity of this defensive line could severely decrease next season.
There is always the option to franchise Johnson, but that would average out to the top five players at his position which is more than he would make on a new contract.
Given his explosiveness and growth over this past season, it would be devastating if the Bengals were to refuse to give Johnson the contract that he deserves and keep this line intact.
This could be one of the biggest signings of the offseason for the Bengals, but it appears to be well worth it.
Andre Smith has finally grown into his first-round expectations and has solidified the right side of the Bengals' offensive line.
In his early career with the Bengals, Andre Smith did not live up to his expectations as a first-round draft selection at all.
He was constantly struggling with weight issues and foot problems which nagged at him since his rookie training camp.
When Smith finally saw playing time, he seemed to be a drastic underachiever. This led the Bengals to opt out of the clause in his rookie contract to extend him further.
Well, that all changed starting with the 2011 season.
Pro Football Focus ranked Smith as the most improved Bengal from 2010 to 2011 when he went from a poor minus-18.0 score to a strong plus-0.2 score.
Smith improved even more in 2012 as he was ranked among the top right tackles in the NFL.
The largest improvement for Smith was in the running game where he became a very formidable force and was able to take on even the most dominant pass-rushers without help.
Smith continued to improve in pass protection as well and did not account for many sacks taken by quarterback Andy Dalton this past season.
It is very difficult to find such a great specimen at tackle in the NFL, and the Bengals would be doing themselves a disservice if they did not allow Smith a new deal.
Yes, Smith will demand a very high level of pay and there is a possibility of the franchise tag, but he is worth every penny as the Bengals offense looks to get a jump-start in 2013.
It all starts up front with the offensive line and Smith is a key ingredient in this recipe.