With the deadline for NFL teams to use the franchise tag coming on Monday, decisions are finally rolling out. For the Cincinnati Bengals, the decision was easy—they used the tag on defensive end Michael Johnson:
Cincinnati Bengals @Bengals
We have designated DE Michael Johnson as the team’s franchise player for 2013. #Bengals2013-3-1 18:46:17
It was a necessary move, considering that if Johnson would have hit the free-agent market, he'd be scooped up quickly by a team in need of a pass-rusher of his caliber. Of course, with the Bengals having over $50 million in salary cap space, they could have easily handed him a long-term contract rather than a one-year deal worth $11.2 million in 2013. But this is Mike Browns' Bengals we are talking about, which means if there's money they don't have to spend, they won't.
According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson was the NFL's 13th-ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012. With 11.5 sacks (according to official NFL statistics), he ranked second on the Bengals defense to Geno Atkins, the NFL's best defensive tackle in 2012. It was also the second-highest single-season sack total for any Bengals defender other than Atkins since 1983.
In total, Johnson had, according to PFF, 55 quarterback pressures in 2012—13 sacks, eight quarterback hits and 34 hurries—along with 52 combined tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception, helping to build the Bengals' defensive line into one of the league's most dangerous units.
Losing him would have been more than simply losing a starter—the Bengals defense would also be losing a motivating force who inspired his defensive teammates to perform better. Barring a new contract offer, there was no other choice but to designate Johnson their franchise player.
It's not out of the question that the Bengals tagged Johnson in anticipation of giving him a long-term contract in the next few months. Head coach Marvin Lewis indicated just that (via The Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson) of the when the tagging announcement came on Friday, saying that "this move is part of the process."
Johnson's price tag will be quite high, however—anywhere between $12 and $14 million per year if he's considered among the upper echelon of pass-rushing defensive ends. Johnson is only 26 years old, meaning he has at least four years of high-quality football ahead of him, and considering the standards set by his contemporaries, Jared Allen of the Minnesota Vikings and Denver's Elvis Dumervil, it stands to reason that he's on the path to a very high payday.
Dumervil's contract is a good one to look at when it comes to what Johnson may command either later this spring from the Bengals or next year. In 2010, Dumervil signed a six-year deal worth a total of $61.5 million that averages $10.5 million per year, with his highest-paid seasons netting him $15.623 million in combined salary and bonuses.
Considering Cincinnati's present salary cap situation, the fact that the cap is set to rise exponentially in 2014 with the inclusion of television revenue and the requirement that teams spend 89 percent of their total cash between 2013 and 2016, it seems that a comparable payday for Johnson wouldn't be prohibitive.
That, however, is traditional thinking, whereas this is the Bengals; Brown would much rather be able to turn a pricey player into a bargain whenever possible.
Whatever the Bengals decide to do with Johnson—keep him their tagged player in 2013 or using the tag as a springboard to a long-term deal—franchising him now was the right move and probably the only one immediately available to them with the deadline to do so looming.
The most important thing is that Johnson will remain a Bengal in 2013, which keeps together Cincinnati's impressive defensive line. Any potential contract can come later and talks can continue for months if they need to. Using the franchise tag on a talent like Johnson is a bit of a frustrating move on the Bengals part, considering how flush with cash they are, but it's better than the alternative—doing nothing and losing one of their very best defenders.