In March of 2013, Batman lost his Robin.
When Elvis Dumervil left pass-rush partner Von Miller and the Denver Broncos for the Baltimore Ravens, it dented the Broncos pass rush severely. The Broncos defense has held up thanks to Miller, but the pass rush isn't the same as the one that led the NFL's second-best defense last year. Consequently, the Broncos could greatly benefit from the addition of another solid pass-rusher.
Michael Johnson, currently of the Cincinnati Bengals, could be that rusher.
The soon-to-be free agent has underwhelmed in terms of sacks, as he has just three this season. However, he has been great in other facets of defensive end play. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Johnson has been the third-most productive 4-3 defensive end this year.
In terms of getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Johnson still has been decent as a pass-rusher—his 35 quarterback hurries lead pass-rushers as dominant as Cameron Wake—but he's also been remarkable against the run. His plus-19.9 run defense grade is second only to Rob Ninkovich.
So, even though Johnson hasn't gotten much attention, he's actually an amazing player.
He might not get as much money as a sack machine like J.J. Watt, but he's going to cash in. Luckily for the Denver Broncos, they will be able to pay him.
According to overthecap.com, the Broncos are due to pay more than $121 million in 2014. Forty-one players are either under contract or have an option for next year, leaving 12 players remaining (although only the 51 highest-paid players count against the salary cap).
The cap for 2014 is expected to be $126.3 million, according to NFL.com's Albert Breer. That gives the Broncos approximately $5 million to spend, which is obviously not enough to fill out the roster.
However, it's also worth noting that the Broncos can tamper with their own roster. If they were to cut Champ Bailey, that would relieve them of $10 million (and, yes, the Broncos could definitely do that).
Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen and Chris Kuper are also making a lot of money even with minimal snaps, so their deals could be restructured or terminated. Even Peyton Manning could take a pay cut to help the team.
That would give the Broncos space to re-sign some key players, such as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris, Wesley Woodyard, Eric Decker and Zane Beadles.
Should the Broncos prioritizing re-signing players or signing players from other teams?
Woodyard and Harris should come cheap. Woodyard has struggled mightily, and Harris hasn't been amazing. Those two shouldn't hurt the Broncos too much financially, and they should be able to sign Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and still hand out another lucrative contract.
And if it doesn't sign the soon-to-be rich Decker, the recipient could be Johnson.
Either way, the Broncos could lure in Johnson. A player like him is absolutely necessary for the Broncos, and they don't have that player right now. He could be the run-stopping force the Broncos need.
Would Michael Johnson transform the Broncos run defense?
Current starting defensive end Derek Wolfe doesn't excel in that aspect, and neither does the undersized Shaun Phillips. As for new defensive end Jeremy Mincey, he is only under contract until the end of this year and hasn't been great anyways. Denver needs to be able to stop the run, and right now, it's struggling.
However, Johnson can anchor that line and make his presence felt.
If the Broncos want to be able to stop ball-control teams like the San Diego Chargers (who controlled the time of possession and beat the Broncos), they need someone like Johnson. He can make plays against the run and force teams into third-and-long situations, which would help him and Miller as pass-rushers.
Additionally, with Miller occupying opponents' best blocker, Johnson would benefit from relatively easy matchups. He would be a much more productive and consistent pass-rusher, and he would serve as a great sidekick to Miller.
Basically, he would create a ripple effect that would help the whole defense.
Right now, that defense is struggling and dragging down the whole team. The unit is ranked 23rd in total defense and has surrendered an unacceptable 26.6 points per game. It hasn't been able to stop the run lately, and that's largely because of a helpless, beaten-down defensive line.
Also, the pass rush has been anemic in recent weaks. It has four sacks in its last three games, and that's because Phillips (who is likely to leave after hitting free agency) has gone cold, and Miller hasn't been able to carry the whole defense.
However, with Johnson, the consistency would be there against the run and the pass.
You could argue that someone like Greg Hardy or Brian Orakpo would do the same, but Johnson's a better fit. Hardy is a solid all-around player, but he's not the difference-maker the Broncos need against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, he has earned a grade higher than a 2.0 against the run just once this year.
Which player would be the best fit in Denver?
Conversely, Johnson has made a huge difference against the run. He would be a better fit than both Hardy and Orakpo. Denver doesn't run a 3-4, and Orakpo is a 3-4 outside linebacker.
In addition, Johnson and his current season total of three sacks might not command as much money. Pass-rushers are being prioritized more and more in today's pass-happy league, so Hardy and Orakpo, who have eight and 10 sacks, might get more lucrative contracts than Johnson.
The Broncos have more needs and don't need Hardy and Orakpo's sacks as much as they need Johnson's run-stopping abilities. Johnson is a better fit for the Broncos in all aspects, and they should certainly make a move when free agency starts.
He hasn't exactly been an exciting playmaker, but he's a perfect fit on a team that already has an elite defensive playmaker (Miller) as well as Manning on offense. The Broncos will be able to dish Johnson the cash he wants, and in turn the defensive end would be able to transform the Broncos defense.