Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March and even though his future in Cincinnati is currently unknown, Johnson isn't worried about the free agent process.
For more on Johnson, visit Cincy Jungle
"I'm not trippin', no one else should," Johnson said, according to Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "I don't worry about all that other stuff. I approach every year the same, that's what works for me."
Johnson broke out in a big way last season, setting career highs in tackles and sacks. His 11.5 sacks were the fifth most in the AFC and equaled his combined sack total during the first three years of his career. Johnson finished with a Pro Football Focus grade of plus-12.0, the third highest among free agent edge defenders.
Among the better athletes at defensive end, Johnson should have plenty of potential suitors as he could fit in as either a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme or an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. As Brennen Warner of Cincy Jungle wrote, there is already talk that the Cleveland Browns would be very interested in Johnson if he hits the market.
There is a chance Johnson never hits the open market. According to Reedy's report, Johnson's agent and the Bengals are expected to begin discussions at the NFL Scouting Combine. If the two sides are unable to work out a long-term extension, Cincinnati could instead choose to use the franchise tag to retain Johnson for at least another season. Johnson, along with right tackle Andre Smith, is considered to be a possibility to be tagged by the Bengals.
If the Bengals did use the franchise tag on Johnson, they would have to tender him a one-year contract worth $10.984 million. Salary cap space isn't an issue now as the Bengals have an estimated $55.1 million in cap room, but it could become an issue in the near future. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap and defensive tackle Geno Atkins are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next offseason. Both, like Johnson, are expected to draw considerable free agent interest. Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green will also be eligible for contract extensions next offseason.
If Johnson does hit the free agent market, he could be in line for a major payday. According to Spotrac, the 10 highest paid defensive ends all make at least $10 million per season. With only one very good season under his belt, Johnson isn't likely to crack the top 10, but should do very well. Last offseason, the Browns signed former Bengals defensive end Frostee Rucker to a five-year $20.5 million deal. Johnson is younger than Rucker was and coming off a better season. As a result, he could be looking at a contract in the range of $7 million per season.
While he is remaining calm through the process, Johnson said he wants to stay in Cincinnati.
"Everything will work itself out and I'll be in the best situation - hopefully that's in Cincinnati," Johnson said, according to Pro Football Talk. "We've got a good thing going. We've got to continue to improve, make some more strides and make even more noise."