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Michael Johnson Retains Value for Bucs Despite Upcoming Balloon Payment

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 20, 2015

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Michael Johnson (90) celebrates a sack against the Chicago Bears during an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014 in Chicago. The Bears won the game 21-13. (Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)
Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

Defensive end Michael Johnson didn't live up to expectations in 2014, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be foolish to cut ties with him after only one season. 

With all but two teams fully entering the offseason during Senior Bowl week, organizations are contemplating future moves. Who will stay? Who will go? How can these teams create much-needed cap space? 

There will be numerous moving parts within each and every franchise over the next three-and-a-half months. 

For the Buccaneers, one of their biggest decisions will be whether or not they should retain Johnson for a second season. 

The defensive end signed a five-year, $43.75 million contract with the Buccaneers on the first day of free agency this past year. Johnson was viewed as the top edge-rusher available on the market. It was a key addition for the Buccaneers in order to build the type of defense new head coach Lovie Smith prefers. 

Johnson, however, underwhelmed. 

The 6'7", 270-pound defensive end didn't return to the player who registered 11.5 sacks during the 2012 campaign. Instead, he barely eclipsed his disappointing 2013 season with four sacks this past year. 

Johnson clearly disappointed after being the crown jewel of the Buccaneers' offseason. 

Smith didn't wait long to call out Johnson. After a 1-4 start to the season, the coach used the media as a tool to light a fire under his defensive ends, particularly Johnson, per Scout.com's Gil Arcia

Not as good of production as we need is what I’ll say. But for Michael Johnson, he’s been banged up most of the year. After the bye week, you should be pretty close to being at full speed then. But, of course, it takes more than him. We looked at different combinations right there. I’ll just say that we need to get more production from him, and we have to, led by our bell cow Michael Johnson.

Smith hoped Johnson would improve after the bye week, but the former member of the Cincinnati Bengals never became the pass-rushing presence the organization envisioned upon handing him the hefty contract in March. 

As a result, Johnson's overall worth will be continually questioned prior to the start of the NFL's new year. 

Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported that "$7 million will become fully guaranteed as of the third day of the 2015 league year." 

Despite the disparity in production compared to compensation, Johnson remains a vital component to the Buccaneers as the team plans for the upcoming season. 

Let's start with the contract breakdown. 

As PFT reported, the upcoming $7 million payment can be avoided if the Buccaneers release him before the deadline. However, the team still owes the defensive end $7 million more from the original guaranteed money that will count against the Buccaneers' salary cap as dead money upon his release, according to spotrac.com.  

Johnson's contract carries an overall $9 million cap hit this season. The Buccaneers will have to choose between saving the organization that same amount in real money with only $2 million actually being gained in salary-cap space. 

Whereas in 2016, the Buccaneers can release Johnson and none of his $8.25 cap hit will count against the team. 

OverTheCap.com estimates Tampa Bay will have over $25 million in cap space entering free agency. The team simply isn't in dire need to create more. 

Financially, it's counterproductive to try and save $2 million to replace Johnson or leave a void at the position when the defensive end was so highly touted less than a year ago.

There were obstacles Johnson faced in 2014 that could lead the team to believe he'll be a better player in 2015.

As Smith mentioned in the previous quote, the fifth-year veteran was slowed by injuries.

The defensive end lacked the explosiveness off the snap he showed earlier in his career due to a high ankle sprain he suffered during the Buccaneers' first defensive series of the season. Seven weeks later, Johnson injured his hand, which hampered his ability to disengage from blocks. 

Johnson told The Tampa Tribune's Roy Cummings that he can return to his 2012 form after regaining his health during the offseason: 

"I think I can get back to that. I just need to take this time (off) and use it to get as healthy as possible. That’s why this offseason is going to be a big one for me. I want to make next year a great year, and next year starts now."

The defensive end admitted his play disappointed in 2014 and expects to play at a much higher level this fall: 

I’m not going to put an asterisk on (this season) or anything like that, because I suited up. And every time you suit up, what you put on tape is who you are. But that’s over now and the only thing I can do about it is use it as fuel to have the best offseason I’ve ever had preparation wise and then come back and have the best regular season I’ve ever had.

There are two reasons why Buccaneers brass should believe Johnson. 

First, the defensive end claimed he was only healthy for three games during his initial season in Tampa Bay. Those three games came at the end of the year. 

During that period, Johnson registered six tackles, four stops, a sack and a forced fumble, according to Pro Football Focus. While none of those numbers is particularly impressive, each of those statistics accounted for at least 22 percent or more of his entire yearly production. 

Johnson's improved play didn't just coincide with improved health. The defensive end began to receive more help toward the end of the season once Jacquies Smith was named a starter prior to Week 12. 

Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

With Jacquies Smith's emergence and his 5.5 sacks over a five-week period, teams couldn't continually slide their pass protections toward Johnson's side of the field. Opponents had to account for both defensive ends, which wasn't the case through the first 10 weeks of the season.

Furthermore, the Buccaneers' starting defensive front of Johnson, Jacquies Smith, Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald only appeared together in one contest. 

Lovie Smith doesn't know exactly what he has in the unit. As individuals, he knows what to expect, but he hasn't seen them play together over any length of time.

Simply put, the Buccaneers don't know exactly what they have in Johnson or the rest of the defensive line. Their projected starters accumulated 24 of the team's 36 sacks despite never establishing any type of continuity up front. 

The unit is stacked with talent, but the team never got to see how good it could really be. 

Johnson is the most glaring example of that situation. 

The Buccaneers will never know what they have in Johnson if they decide to prematurely cut ties. It's far more prudent to grant the talented defensive end more time to grow in Lovie Smith's system with the proper talent around him before finalizing a decision on his future with the franchise.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFC South for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. 

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