The Bengals have tagged defensive end Michael Johnson as their franchise player.
Johnson, a third-round draft choice in 2009, had his best season last year with 70 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 25 quarterback pressures, one interception and three pass breakups. He started 15 games in the regular season as well as the Wild Card playoff game at Houston.
He was second on the team in sacks behind the 12.5 accumulated by All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
“Obviously we are committed to re-signing Mike,” said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, “and this move is part of the process to keep a young and promising defense together. Mike has worked hard to improve himself every year during his time as a Bengal, helping us to the postseason three of four years. We have every reason to believe he will continue to grow as a leader and productive player.”
NFL free agency doesn’t begin until March 12. Teams choosing to use their franchise or transition tags on players must do so by March 4, so the Bengals beat that deadline by three days. The cost of a one-year franchise contract tender for a defensive end is $11.175 million. Johnson may still negotiate with other teams but by using the franchise tag the Bengals have the right to match any offer he receives. If they were to decline to match an offer, they would instead receive two first-round draft choices as compensation.
The Bengals have 23 players who will be eligible for free agency, either unrestricted or restricted, if they do not sign contracts before March 12. The Bengals and Johnson may continue to negotiate on a long-term deal.
Various reports, including one from NFL.com, have the Bengals with an estimated $54 million of space to work with under the league’s expected salary cap of $123 million.
Lewis said at last week’s scouting combine in Indianapolis that the team would focus its efforts on re-signing as many of its own players as it could.
Among the potential free agents are right tackle Andre Smith, linebackers Thomas Howard and Rey Maualuga, cornerbacks Adam Jones and Terence Newman and all of their specialists in punter Kevin Huber, long snapper Clark Harris and kickers Mike Nugent and Josh Brown.
The Bengals are also looking ahead to the future as Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap will be eligible for free agency next year. They may negotiate with those two, as well as tight end Jermaine Gresham, who has two years left on his current deal, on long-term deals at any point. Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green also have two years left on their contracts but since they were drafted in 2011 their deals fall under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Under the new CBA, teams may not renegotiate with players until after the third year of their rookie contracts.
Johnson won the AFC Defensive Player of the Week award for Week 3 when he had three sacks for minus-17 yards, five additional quarterback pressures and six solo tackles in a 38-31 win at Washington.
Johnson’s sack total from 2012 equaled the number of sacks he had in his first three seasons. He had a previous high of six sacks in 2011. Johnson has not missed a game in his four seasons and has worked his way into becoming an every-down player as opposed to just a pass rushing specialist.
“This guy has come up in our system, he plays about 85 percent of our snaps, and he’s the kind of guy we love to have around,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. “He’s hard-working and a great team player. He’s an outstanding run defender in addition to his pass rush production. He’s got great length and size, and great speed off the edge.”