Bengals/Browns combine notes: Michael Johnson's future, T-Rich trade

The Bengals are preparing for possible life without defensive end Michael Johnson, who was their franchise tag player last year in free agency. Johnson is due to become an unrestricted free agent on March 11 unless the Bengals choose to again use their franchise tag on him.

The Bengals will have to decide if they will use their franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson for the second consecutive season.

Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Bengals are preparing for possible life without defensive end Michael Johnson, who was their franchise tag player last year in free agency. Johnson is due to become an unrestricted free agent on March 11 unless the Bengals choose to again use their franchise tag on him.

That tag for defensive ends was $11.175 million last year and is expected to be in the range of $12.5 million for a one-year deal this year. The franchise tag values, which are the average of the top five salaries at a given position, will be announced after the NFL finalizes its salary cap for the 2014 season.

The Bengals signed tackle Geno Atkins and end Carlos Dunlap to long-term extensions last offseason. They attempted to sign Johnson to an extension last year but the two sides couldn't come to an agreement. He set a career high with 11.5 sacks in 2012. Johnson had just 3.5 sacks last season but he arguably had his best all-around season as he led the defensive line in tackles (74) and was second to Dunlap with 33 quarterback pressures and nine passes defensed.

According to the analytical web site ProFootballFocus.com, Johnson played in 976 snaps last season, including the playoffs against San Diego. He missed one game, against New England, because of a concussion but he still played the second-most snaps of any defensive lineman on the team behind Dunlap's 999.

It wouldn't be impossible to re-sign Johnson but chances are with the depth the Bengals have all along the defensive line and the amount of salary cap space they have already allotted to the position group that he will end up playing elsewhere in 2014.

"Michael obviously is a player that we would continue to love to have back," said head coach Marvin Lewis last Friday as he spoke with Cincinnati reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine. "We are going to do what we can to continue to sign our players as we have, guys we've targeted. We don't have very many this year. We are fortunate they did a great job last year upstairs in signing our players. We hope to have the same success this year. We are going to work hard at it."

New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is making plans for whatever happens but obviously would like to have Johnson included in those plans.

"I think he wants to be here. I think he likes it here," said Guenther. "I think he likes the players. I think he likes the team, but every guy may get an opportunity to test the market sometime, it's human to want to see what is out there, I guess. I don't know what is going to happen. I couldn't tell you."

The Bengals drafted Margus Hunt in the second round last season with this kind of possibility in mind.

O'Donnell impresses: Former University of Cincinnati punter Pat O'Donnell acquitted himself well at the combine. O'Donnell, who graduated last spring from UC and then transferred to Miami (Fla.) as a grad student for his final season of eligibility, showed off his overall athleticism by running an official time of 4.64 seconds in the 40-yard dash and finishing with 23 reps on the 225-pound bench press.

O'Donnell was first-team All-Big East selection with UC in 2011 and was on the second team in 2012. He was first-team All-ACC with Miami last season. There is no question of his leg strength -- he had eight straight games last season with at least one punt of 50 or more yards -- but in the NFL he will have to show that he can consistently punt with accuracy, especially when trying to pin opponents inside the 20.

Long road: Cincinnati native Preston Brown wasn't sure he'd make it to his second game at Louisville. That was a long four years ago from where he was this weekend in Indianapolis.

Brown, from Northwest High School, started his first game as a freshman for the Cardinals against rival Kentucky. The Wildcats scored on the first play from scrimmage.

"I thought I would have to transfer down to division eight or something," said Brown. "But it was good going through that and growing through that and seeing how I grew as a player and how the team grew as a whole."

Louisville grew into a national power and Brown was a four-year starter for the Cardinals. Early draft projections have him going in the fifth or sixth rounds. That's of no concern for Brown, who measured in at 6-1, 251 pounds.

"I'm getting mixed results coming from different scouts and different organizations," said Brown. "It's pretty fun to see what they think of me. I just want to prove the doubters wrong any way I can... You can't get upset or take it personally. They have a right to their own opinion. You've just got to go out there and prove to them that you are better than what they think you are."

Chud to Colts: Former Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski, who was fired after one season, has joined the Indianapolis coaching staff as a special assistant to head coach Chuck Pagano.

"We've had a long-standing personal and professional relationship," said Pagano. "I've known Chud for a long, long time. It's a great opportunity, a great hire for us. Chud is going to be a great resource."

Pagano was a grad assistant at the University of Miami in 1986 when Chudzinski was a freshman tight end. The Colts won the AFC South division title last season and beat Kansas City in the AFC wild card round before losing at New England.

"He's a brilliant guy, a really bright guy, a very smart guy and a really good football coach. He's well-versed in a lot of different areas," said Pagano. "We had an opportunity to add another piece to the puzzle which makes our team better and gets us one step closer to our ultimate goal, and that's hoisting the Lombardi and participating in Super Bowl 49 in Phoenix."

--- Fred Greetham

T-Rich trade: Colts general manager Ryan Grigson was asked if he had it to do over again, would he make the trade with Cleveland last September that sent running back Trent Richardson to the Colts in exchange for Indy's round pick in this year's draft. Grigson had a one-word answer.

"Yes."

Richardson led Indy with 157 rushing attempts but averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and eventually was replaced as the Colts' No. 1 running back by Donald Brown.

"I think there's room for improvement, like I could say for anyone," Grigson said. "There are areas in Trent's game where he really did show up and help us in key situations."

Pagano was positive about Richardson.

"The sky's the limit for Trent, having a full off-season with us," Pagano said. "This will be an important off-season for him...We are looking for great things from Trent and Trent looks for great things from himself. Moving forward there are high expectations there."

--- Fred Greetham

Whisenhunt vs. Banner: New Tennessee coach Ken Whisenhunt was rumored to have had an argument with former Browns CEO Joe Banner during the team's recent coaching search. The subject came up during Whisenhunt's podium session at the combine. Whisenhunt never bit.

"Well, I'm honored to be considered to work with the Browns," Whisenhunt said. "I have a lot of respect for Mr. Haslam and that organization. I've played against them, competed against them a number of years. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity. I can't speak to anything other than I'm honored to be considered there and I wish them the best."

Whisenhunt had also been a part of Cleveland's coaching search last year before Chudzinski was hired. It has been reported that Whisenhunt asked this year why the Browns didn't hire him a year earlier and that Banner told Whisenhunt that he didn't like the coaching staff Whisenhunt said he was putting together.

Again, Whisenhunt refused to bite.

"He didn't specifically talk about that with me."

Whisenhunt decided to take the high road.

"I can't comment on that because there's a lot of things that go on as far as, you know, it's just one of the things that you just don't want to, there's just nothing really to say about it," he said. "I ended up in Tennessee. I'm happy to be here and excited about my opportunity."

--- Fred Greetham

Steelers trade revisited: On draft day last year, the Browns sent their fourth-round draft pick to the Steelers for a third-round pick in this year's draft.

The Steelers selected safety Shamarko Thomas with the pick. Pittsburgh personnel director Kevin Colbert said any final grade on the trade is inconclusive at best right now.

"When you're 8-8 nothing was right," Colbert said. "We have to go back and look at everything we did. We've done that and we'll continue to do that.

"But at that point we felt that trading our third-round pick this year for a fourth-round pick last year to get a player, Shamarko Thomas, a safety that we felt was worthy of a third-round pick, we'd do it again today. But the result is the 8-8 (season), and we'll see if Shamarko can help change that. If he does, it was a good deal. If he doesn't, it wasn't."

--- Fred Greetham