Michael Johnson doesn't fit the mold of a premier free-agent defensive end.
In fact, throughout his career, he's left behind the shattered rubble of several different molds. Neither the classic forms of an edge pass-rusher nor a run-stopping end nor rush outside linebacker could contain his 6'7", 270-pound frame.
After a breakout 2012 season that saw him compile a career-high 11.5 sacks, it seemed as though Johnson fell back to earth in 2013. With just 3.5 sacks on a defense loaded with talent—and a roster loaded with free-agents-to-be—NFL.com's Ian Rapoport tweeted that Johnson will "definitely hit the market."
What happened to Johnson in 2013, what kind of player is he now and what can he offer the teams looking to sign him?
The Pass-Rushing "Drop-Off"
Sacks are one of the NFL's most misleading stats.
A 4-3 defensive end like Johnson can blow up an offensive tackle, only to watch helplessly as the quarterback flees into the waiting arms of a different defender.
Conversely, he can be stonewalled by a tackle for four seconds while the quarterback scrambles for his life, only to get credited with a sack by chasing the quarterback out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage.
When a player piles up double-digit sacks year after year, it's no coincidence. However, massive swings in year-to-year sack numbers usually have more to do with good or bad luck than a huge change in production.
Johnson only had 3.5 official sacks in 15 starts, it's true, but he brought plenty of heat on the quarterback.
Pro Football Focus calculates a stat it calls "Pass Rush Productivity," which looks at sacks, quarterback hits and quarterback hurries in relation to number of times the player rushes the passer.
Johnson finished 24th in PRP among 37 qualifying 4-3 defensive ends (subscription required). His five sacks, 16 hits and 40 hurries according to PFF gave him a PRP of 8.5.
He finished ninth out of 18 right defensive ends. So, of the 18 4-3 ends who spent most of their time working against their opponent's best pass protector, Johnson was right in the middle of the pack in terms of getting to the quarterback.
His PRP in 2012? 8.8, which was good for PFF's ninth-best mark among 4-3 ends that season.
Once we look beyond official sack numbers, it's clear Johnson was exactly as good at rushing the passer in 2013 as he was in 2012.
The Scouting Report
Much like with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, Johnson's NFL.com draft profile reads like somebody went a little crazy on the Madden video game's create-a-player feature: 6'7", 260 pounds, 4.75-second 40-yard dash time, 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, a 38.5-inch vertical jump and a 128-inch standing broad jump.
Again, Johnson breaks the conventional mold for a 4-3 defensive end: He's too tall to easily get his pads beneath left tackles who are often shorter than he is. He's long and lean for his height, meaning he doesn't have the bulk to really drop anchor and clog running lanes.
According to NFL.com, "Johnson might have a future as a pass-rushing linebacker in the 3-4 scheme so he can use his length and agility in coverage."
It's Johnson's very size, though, that makes him an awkward fit as a linebacker. He's fast and agile for for a man of 6'7", but he doesn't have the speed and agility of a Justin Houston or Brian Orakpo, nor the open-field fluidity of a skilled coverage linebacker.
Nevertheless, as Johnson has grown into his "tweener" frame, he's grown comfortable in his role and technique.
Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Matt Miller's B/R 1000 breakdown of Johnson last spring reveals a lot about how Johnson's learned to use his body's advantages and mask his disadvantages.
"Johnson can impact the game as a run defender," Miller wrote. "He doesn’t have the natural strength to be an anchor on the edge, but as an outside defensive end, he’ll knife through the tackle-guard gap to stop inside runs."
Johnson's speed and agility make him difficult for left tackles to deal with if they can't get their hands on him.
"Blockers can cause problems for him if engaged, but he has a developing shoulder dip and had increased footwork in 2012," Miller continued. "Johnson can do better to work inside and find countermoves. Johnson won’t show the strength to bull rush, but his length and speed are exceptional."
"Thought of too often as a situational player, Johnson has developed into an every-down stud as a run-stopper and pass-rusher," Miller concluded.
Because of Johnson's unique skill set, he won't be a perfect fit for many teams.
With his size, length and ability to contain outside runs and screens, he'd be ideal for the Wide 9 system employed by the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills. However, the Lions already have 2013 No. 5 overall pick Ezekiel Ansah in the rush end spot and the Bills employ highly-paid Mario Williams.
If Johnson's paid what he's worth in the open market, he'll likely be too expensive for these teams to sign as a bookend, as they already have an awful lot invested in their defensive lines.
However, Johnson's versatility makes him a good fit for almost any team.
As Pro Football Focus' second-graded run-stopping end, he'd be an improvement over almost any team's 4-3 team's strong-side run-stuffer. Working against right tackles, he just might become the dominant speed-rusher he's never quite been.
Could he go to a 3-4 team desperate for a pass-rusher? USA Today Sports editor Brent Sobleski tweeted in February 2013 that the Cleveland Browns were interested in Johnson before ultimately signing Paul Kruger.
It's also possible to see Johnson making the same transition that another ex-Bengals defensive end made down the road. Justin Smith, a fabulous run-stopping 4-3 end with good-but-not-great pass-rushing skills, switched to 3-4 end in San Francisco after a down year and became dominant.
Johnson would have to keep adding bulk and strength to make that leap, but it's not hard to see that as an eventuality for the 27-year-old.
Johnson's lack of eye-popping numbers might initially keep his free-agent dollar figures down, but the sheer number of teams he'd make better will eventually drive his price back up to where it belongs.
If he's used well, there's no reason to believe Johnson won't continue to be one of the best two-way edge players in football.
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