The highest-profile of the Cincinnati Bengals' impending crop of free agents is defensive end Michael Johnson. Johnson had 56 combined tackles in the 2013 regular season, as well as 3.5 sacks, nine passes defensed, an interception and two fumble recoveries.
Johnson has become an integral part of the Bengals' formidable front seven. He had a career-high 11.5 sacks in the 2012 season and has a total of 26.5 on his career. He's defensed 25 passes, forced three fumbles, recovered three fumbles and has had two interceptions in his time with the Bengals.
Johnson played his 2013 season on the franchise tag, which was worth $11.175 million—the highest payout to any player on the team for the year. However, the hefty payday came with a price; a tag is good to keep a player happy for a year, but it's carried with no job security.
The Bengals project to have around $23.3 million in salary cap room heading into the 2014 season—$7.76 million in carry-over cash from 2013 and an estimated $15.58 million left over for 2014. While that's a good amount of money, money that could potentially be used to pay Johnson, what it could cost the Bengals in the long run may not be worth it.
Just looking at the paydays being given to other high-level 4-3 defensive ends like Johnson, the problem quickly becomes evident. Johnson is both talented and healthy, having missed only one game in his professional career. Those two qualities will combine to give him a very large contract, one the Bengals won't be able to match, this offseason.
When guarantees and bonuses are factored in, the cap hit for Johnson could be in the range of $10 to $15 million per year. That eats up as much as half of the Bengals' cap this year and even more in the seasons to come.
At the same time, the Bengals have to factor in the number of their other higher-profile players hitting free agency in 2015. Signing Johnson to a fair contract this offseason would come at the expense of many others, like wide receiver A.J. Green, quarterback Andy Dalton, linebacker Vontaze Burfict and defensive tackle Domata Peko.
Their 2016 free-agent class also compounds the situation, with cornerbacks Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick, offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth and defensive ends Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry all set to hit the market without new deals of their own.
Spending so much on Johnson would severely hurt the Bengals' ability to hold on to a great number of important players. Johnson simply doesn't mean enough to the defensive roster to warrant this trade-off.
It would be a different story if Johnson was the lone game-changer on Cincinnati's defense. However, that isn't the case, which makes Johnson's impending departure that much less painful. The Bengals are exceedingly deep at defensive end presently. Beyond Johnson, there is Gilberry, Geathers, Margus Hunt and Carlos Dunlap, along with David King, who signed a reserve/futures contract after being on the team's practice squad in 2013.
And the Bengals are deep with talent in most other areas of their roster as well. That makes the 2014 NFL draft a playground for the Bengals, rather than the minefield it can often be for less talented teams with more glaring roster holes. The Bengals can easily take the best 4-3 defensive end available to them at 24th overall in the first round without ignoring another position of greater need.
Granted, that won't be South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney but it could very well be Missouri's Kony Ealy, who had 9.5 sacks on the year. WalterFootball.com describes Ealy as an every-down defensive end who may be a prodigious edge-rusher but also possesses great run-stopping ability. If he's on the board when the Bengals make their first-round pick, he'd be a natural addition to their roster.
A less expensive free-agency addition could also boost the Bengals' ranks at defensive end, if only for a year or two while younger players like the aforementioned (and hypothetical) Ealy and second-year player Hunt develop their NFL skills.
There are names that stand out in the list of other 4-3 ends who are set to hit free agency this year, but the question of availability arises for each of them. They include Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, who made an average of $4.8 million per season. Bennett, however, is a Super Bowl champion, which instantly increases his asking price.
What would you like the Bengals to do about Michael Johnson?
Matt Shaughnessy of the Arizona Cardinals could be a good option, but he's one of the team's highest-priority free agents, and he may get a deal from the Cardinals before ever testing the market. The same goes for Shaun Phillips of the Denver Broncos. The balance of talented players available seems to be shrinking, which means free agency may not be a good source for the Bengals finding a replacement for Johnson.
But again, this matters little because of the other defensive ends currently on the roster and the Bengals' freedom with their draft picks. The Bengals don't have their backs against the walls because of Johnson's free agency because they've done such a good overall job building their roster over the past few years. Their defense won't fall apart without Johnson anchoring one side of the line, especially considering it didn't when Geno Atkins tore his ACL in Week 9.
The Bengals can let Johnson walk, promote Gilberry to starter and save cash better spent on multiple 2015 and 2016 free agents rather than tying up double-digit millions on just one player. Everything is much more simple when a team builds such a strong roster as the Bengals have.