The Mike Factor
With Michael Johnson in the fold as the starting right end, here’s what it means:
-Call this The Michael Johnson Tribute Draft.
Next month’s draft has opened up big enough to drive through the Bengals defensive line with an edge rusher no longer on the priority list. Thanks to Johnson signing in Tampa Bay last season as an unrestricted free agent, the Bengals get an extra third-round pick.
That means they get four picks in the first three rounds, and, thanks to Johnson, they can pretty much lean back and take the best player regardless of position. Offensive tackle is still a need, but not big enough that it would prevent them from taking the best player.
-The Robert Geathers Factor.
Johnson makes everybody better around him. If rookie right end Will Clarke, last year’s third-round pick, is the second coming of a young Michael Johnson, then the 28-year-old Johnson looms as the next Geathers. Geathers, the 11-year end who was such a leader on the defensive line for young players like Johnson, end Carlos Dunlap, and tackle Geno Atkins, was released last month.
But in Johnson they get a solid guy like Geathers, who along with the vet of the group, tackle Domata Peko, can take guys like Clarke and third-year end Margus Hunt under his 6-7 wing span.
When he signed his deal Sunday, Johnson told Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis that Clarke can keep Johnson’s No. 93 (“It’s his number”) and he’ll take No. 90, since he plans on being better than he was his first five seasons with the Bengals. He also told Lewis he’s not looking for the first-class seat on the plane, where most of the seven-year NFL vets and older reside. He’ll take his regular exit row in coach.
Johnson also has an excellent relationship with Atkins. Indeed, Johnson may be one of the few people that has had extended conversations with Atkins. With both coming off disappointing seasons, look for them to get a second wind now that they’re re-united.
“All I know is that Gene doesn’t have much to say to me,” says defensive line coach Jay Hayes. “Yes. Or no. Or, ‘I’ll do it, Coach.’ But I know that he loosens up around the guys and they really like Mike so it can’t help but be a good thing for everybody.”
How much do they like him? When those first few weeks were tough in Tampa Bay and the Bengals D-Line had its training camp break-up dinner, Johnson called in to see how they were doing and they gave him the needle with, ‘Why aren’t you bonding with your teammates?”
Now he is.
When his agent, former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, drove him back to the airport Sunday afternoon, Johnson’s phone looked like the Bengals Game Day flip card as the names rolled in their congratulations.
-The Pull on The Rotation.
Hayes has to be one of the five happiest people in Cincinnati now that Johnson is back because he can start rolling people through again like he did in 2012 and 2013, when the D-line was the heart of a defense that finished sixth and third, respectively, in the NFL.
With Johnson gone last season, Geathers and end/tackle Wallace Gilberry played more than they have in the past. In ’12 and ’13, Gilberry had a combined 14 sacks on 836 snaps. Last year he had 1.5 sacks in 840 plays, so this should be a huge lift for him. Now, Clarke, who played just 61 snaps as a rookie, and end Margus Hunt, a second-round pick in ’13 who has played a career 352 snaps, can help take the heat off Johnson, Dunlap, Gilberry, and more.
“Wallace can play inside at tackle and outside at end and so can Margus and Will,’ Hayes says. “That’s the idea, getting the rotation back, and you’ve got a guy in Michael that can step right in. You don’t have to teach him anything. And Mike’s just a young guy, he’s still getting better.”
If you’re dressing out eight linemen with five ends (Johnson, Dunlap, Gilberry, Clarke, Hunt) and three tackles (Peko, Atkins, and Brandon Thompson), it’s nice to have a couple of guys that can slide inside.
“We do know this,” Hayes says. “The chemistry is there. We’ve seen them play well together. A big part of that is they’ve had success together and that gets you closer, too.”
The Johnson move also means The Rotation just got stingier against the run. Johnson’s work there is extremely underrated and with him in there playing 922 snaps like he did in ’13, they won’t finish 20th vs. the run like they did in ’14. Profootballfocus.com rated Johnson second vs. the run among the NFL’s 4-3 ends in 2013 and sixth in 2012.
But he’ll also help the guys around him. With Johnson, Dunlap on the left side, finished ninth vs. the run in 2013 and 15th in 20012, according to PFF. Last year, Dunlap finished 20th. Last year, Gilberry was 46th vs. the run, PFF said. But in ‘12 he was 19th and in ’13 he was 39th.
-Free agency 2015 is over for the Bengals.
Johnson’s four-year, $24 million deal means the Bengals are out of any more free-agency deals that are basically higher than the minimum. That’s because solidifying the offensive line with the re-signing of left guard Clint Bolingand backup tackle Eric Winston (about $6 million), shoring up the front seven with Johnson (about $6 million), re-signing middle linebacker Rey Maualuga ($6.8 million), and signing former Packer linebacker A.J Hawk ($1.7 million), and re-upping kicker Mike Nugent (about $2 million), has cost them about $23 million under this year’s salary cap.
Re-signing tight end Jermaine Gresham seemed to always be a longshot and this made it official. They’d like to get a deal for niche players that have gone into free agency, such as backup running back Cedric Peerman, backup safety Taylor Mays, and possibly No. 2 quarterback Jason Campbell.
At the moment, you have to say the Bengals came out of free agency’s first week better than anyone in the AFC North and that Johnson is the best addition in a division of Josh McCowns, Brian Hartlines, and DeAngelo Williamses.
-Thornton’s display of his agent skills.
The former Bengals defensive tackle who became a full-time agent right after the 2013 season, had a tough assignment with Johnson.
There was a lot of emotion in this one and an awkward, rare situation of a player potentially returning to the team he had just bolted via free agency the year before.
Not only did Johnson love his Bengals mates, but Thornton also played for Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes, and signed a big free-agent deal at Paul Brown Stadium a dozen years ago. But he also played for Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati.
Both sides, including Thornton, handled it coolly and professionally. He got him $6 million per year (the deal maxes out at $24 million) even though Johnson already had $7 million already in the bank from Tampa for this year. The Bengals forgot that they were spurned last year and pursued Johnson even though they had already spent much of their free-agent budget.
“The big thing was taking the emotion out of it,’ Thornton said. “You had to take a step back. The big thing for me was making sure Mike was happy. He’s a small-town guy and relationships are really important to him. That’s why we visited Minnesota and why I went up there with him. To help him take the emotion out of it.
“And Zim was great. It was impressive. He’s got a real good thing going up there with the stadium and he’s got a real good staff. If I was pushing him anywhere, it might have been there. But, in the end, it had to be Mike’s call, and that’s what you have to do as the agent. The Bengals were great. I was thinking, ‘How can you go home again?’ That could have been awkward. But it was a good deal.”
After the festivities of Saturday night, Thornton had a 7 a.m. meeting at Paul Brown Stadium with the club’s negotiator, vice president Troy Blackburn. Johnson had an 11:30 a.m. flight back to Atlanta and Thornton scrubbed it.
“I told Troy, let’s sit down in a room for a while and work out a couple of things,” Thornton said, “and it got done face-to-face.”
So at 11:30, Thornton wasn’t on a plane, but signing the contract.
-The City Wins.
Johnson’s foundation had a far-reaching embrace to the disadvantaged youth in Cincinnati, from elementary school kids to the University of Cincinnati. Most every Tuesday during the season found him out and about, with the most popular venture his monthly stadium tour for MVP Kids.
“Next to Selma, Alabama, this is my home,” Johnson said Sunday morning. “Everything from my brothers on the field, to the community, to the stadium tours I did with the kids. Everything about it. I’m blessed. How many people get a chance to do this?”
The deal is believed to be in the $24 million range with incentives, which means the Bengals have done about $23 million in deals under the salary cap in the past nine days. They’ve shored up their front seven with Johnson, the re-signing of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and the signing of former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk while solidifying their offensive line with the re-signings of starting left guard Clint Boling and backup tackle Eric Winston.
That would suggest the Bengals are left to do minimum deals with any other free agents.
“Our entire organization is just ecstatic about getting Mike back,” said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in a news release. “He’s earned tremendous respect from coaches, teammates and management. He did tremendous things for us while he was here, and we look forward to having him blend back in and uplift us as defensive football team.”
With one flick of the pen, the Bengals have addressed their pass-rush problems that emerged when Johnson went to Tampa Bay in free agency 53 weeks ago. During his five seasons in Cincinnati wearing No. 93 at right end, he was a relentless three-down player against the run while racking up 26.5 sacks and 27 tipped balls. He says he’ll wear No. 90 this trip. Right end Will Clarke, last year’s third-round pick, wears No. 93.
“Agent 90,” he said. “I left wearing 93, now I’m back wearing 90 and I’m going to be better. I said at the end of the last year that 2015 is going to be the best year of my life.”
Johnson went to dinner Saturday night in downtown Cincinnati at Jeff Ruby’s with his agent, former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, as well as Lewis, defensive line coach Jay Hayes and two mates, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive tackle Domata Peko. And he felt the love from the city.
“I must have had 50 hugs and handshakes. ‘Are you coming back,’” Johnson said. “Believe me, the feeling is mutual.”
There was also a Skype session with quarterback Andy Dalton Saturday night, set up by offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, another dinner guest.
“Come back home,” Johnson said of the message.
In a move that rivals the Carson Palmer trade of three years ago (when the Bengals got Dre Kirkpatrick and Giovani Bernard in the draft with Oakland’s draft picks), the Bengals re-signed Johnson a month before they get a third-round pick as compensation for losing him.
It came courtesy of the Buccaneers releasing Johnson on Wednesday after the first season of his five-year, $43 million contract. He struggled in Tampa Bay with injury and had just four sacks.
“I’m not going to make excuses. My production wasn’t what it needs to be last year for whatever reason,” Johnson said in a conference call with the Cincinnati media. “I got the high ankle sprain on the second play of the first game. You can look around the league and see what happens with high ankle sprains. It was tough. I tried to battle through it. I wanted to go back and show them up what I had, but it didn’t happen. Cincinnati is going to get the best season of my career.”
The signing re-unites the Fisher Price Package of 2010-2013, when Johnson teamed with 2010 rookies Carlos Dunlap at end and Geno Atkins at tackle. Along with the veteran Peko and a suffocating rotation, they formed one of the league’s more dominant defensive lines. It culminated in 2012 when Atkins had 12.5 sacks and Johnson added 11.5. With all three getting big money since, the Fisher Price package is now the Wall Street Wall.
Even last year when he was gone, Johnson stayed in the D-line’s text group and the line Skyped him as they rode the bus back from the airport on the trip from Houston the week before they went to Tampa.
“I feel like everybody knows we play well together. I don’t know why, we just do,” Johnson said. “We’ve got that chemistry, that bond. We text each other in that group right now making jokes and laughing. That’s’ what makes things go. When you care about them, they care about you. It’s like brothers. We go to bat for each other. If you’ve never been a part of something like that, it’s hard to explain.
“We kept in touch this whole time. It’s kind of like I never left. We’re about to be a part of something that is going to be special. When you get that something special, you want to try and keep it going. We’ve got it up here, and we’re going to take it to a whole new level. We’re all pumped up.”
But the bad times also fuel Johnson. The Wild Card loss at home to a San Diego team that drilled the heavily-favored Bengals still galls him.
“I saw a picture of me after the Chargers game sitting on the sidelines and I was thinking, that’s not the way I want my Bengals career to go out,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to go out like that. I get an opportunity not to go out like that. I’m excited about that. It’s a blessing.”