NFL free agency doesn't open for another month, but it's growing increasingly clear that defensive end Michael Johnson will be available when teams are able to sign players from other teams.
The Cincinnati Bengals aren't expected to retain Johnson, according to a report from Paul Dehner Jr. of Cincinnati.com. A lacking talent pool and over-abundance of need for pass rushers could push the 27-year-old's potential contract into the stratosphere, which is something the Bengals can't absorb, writes Dehner Jr.:
Last season when the Bengals negotiated with Johnson and couldn't come to terms, they instead gave that cash ($7.78 million APY) to Carlos Dunlap. When Geno Atkins gets 5 years/$55 million, you can forget paying another player on the line the amount of cash Johnson will warrant long term. Somebody will throw a load of money (somewhere between Dunlap/Atkins) at Johnson and the Bengals likely can't afford to match it. They could decide to re-franchise Johnson and take the big hit one more season. That's about the only way he returns in my estimation.
Dehner Jr. places a 20-percent chance that Johnson returns, which produces a quandary for the Bengals. They're a team that has lived on its defense over the last three seasons, but faltered in 2013 thanks in part to a down year from Johnson. They need to make the decision whether they feel they can do without and potentially risk a season of lackluster pressure, or franchise tag him and be strapped in free agency.
Eyes will be on rotational defensive end Wallace Gilberry if the team decides to move on from Johnson. Gilberry has been a back-to-back 5.0+ end, but will need to lift his game and face more attention from offensive coordinators in order to keep the Bengals' defense running as it's accustomed. Rotational pass rushers have made the change with varying degrees of success, but it is a risk.
This season could be a definitive one for Cincinnati after losing offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and needing to take steps forward in order for Marvin Lewis to keep his job as head coach. If Johnson leaves this task would likely be more difficult.