Buccaneers Sign Michael Johnson: Grading the Move and What It Means in Tampa Bay

Knox BardeenNFC South Lead WriterMarch 11, 2014

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers addressed an area of major need on Tuesday, just hours before free agency officially kicked off at the start of the NFL’s calendar year at 4 p.m. ET.

According to Josina Anderson of ESPN, former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson signed with the Bucs, providing a much-needed boost to the team’s pass rush.

Pewter Report indicates that Johnson's deal has been confirmed through his agent. The defensive end will go through a physical and sign his contract upon arrival in Tampa.

Johnson notched just 3.5 sacks in 2013, a down year compared to the 11.5 sacks he registered in 2012.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Johnson was the 18th-ranked defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The site based its assessment on pass-rushing productivity, a proprietary statistic that “measures pressure on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks.”

In 553 pass-rushing snaps, Johnson notched 16 quarterback hits and 40 hurries to go along with his sack total. His hits ranked seventh among 4-3 pass-rushers while his hurries put him at No. 11.

Johnson got to the quarterback last season, he just didn’t pull him down that frequently. NFL coaches will frequently say that sacks are great, but affecting the passer is sometimes just as important. That’s especially true in new head coach Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defense.

The Tampa 2, a play on the Cover 2, utilizes a middle linebacker that drops into deep coverage and doesn’t ask its players to blitz a lot. Therefore, the front four must be speedy and get ferocious pressure on the quarterback.

Johnson has a rare combination of size (6’7”, 270 lbs) and speed, boasting a quick-burst athleticism that could work well in the Tampa 2, where his main area of responsibility will be getting after the QB.

The Buccaneers already have Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn under contract at defensive end. However, neither has lived up to predraft hype and both have faced injury issues.

Clayborn did rank 30th on the PFF list of 4-3 defensive ends at getting to the quarterback and posted three sacks last season. A total of 48.4 percent of his 31 quarterback hurries came in Tampa Bay’s final six games of the year, hinting that there is some upside with Clayborn.

What’s really exciting is the notion of seeing what Johnson can do when he works with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who notched nine sacks in 2013 from the interior of Tampa Bay’s defensive line.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), McCoy was the NFL’s most productive pass-rushing defensive tackle in 2013 with 14 quarterback hits and 56 hurries to go along with his sack total.

With McCoy collapsing pockets from the inside and Johnson attacking from the outside, Tampa Bay’s pass rush just got a lot better.

There are aspects of this deal that do raise caution, however, and they concern the financials.

Paul Dehner of Cincinnati.com reported that Johnson will be extremely well-paid in Tampa Baypaid like a top-10 4-3 defensive end:

Multiple reports have the Bengals 2009 third-round pick agreeing to terms with Tampa Bay for five years and $43.75 million. The average of $8.75 million per season. The deal, if it goes through at those numbers when free agency begins at 4 p.m. today, will make him the seventh highest paid 4-3 defensive end in football, just ahead of Cameron Wake ($8.3) and Carlos Dunlap ($7.9).

Likely out of necessity, the Buccaneers paid a premium for Johnson, whose agent was able to bank on his 11.5-sack season in 2012 even when NFL teams typically pay for future results rather than great seasons from the past.

That price tag not only puts pressure on Johnson to produce, it marks the first deal that could backfire in the era of Smith and new general manager Jason Licht.

The worry that Johnson has work to do to return to the form his paycheck requires means the Bucs will likely have to hedge their bet and either sign another pass-rushing free agent or address the need early in the draft. That takes some of the allure away from Johnson’s signing on Tuesday.

If Johnson returns to 2012 form and stays there for years to come, Tampa Bay did a great thingeven if it did overpay a bit.

If Johnson offers up another 2013, this will be an early black eye on the franchise’s new regime.

Grade: B


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.