Bengals Sign Michael Johnson
After a one-year hiatus in Tampa Bay, Michael Johnson is returning to the team he played the first five years of his career for thanks to a four-year, $24 million contract. It’s a somewhat surprising reappearance in Cincinnati seeing as just one year ago Johnson had parlayed his free agent status into a five-year, $44 million contract with the Buccaneers, having been one of the biggest profile names available in the 2014 class. The Bucs had paid Johnson $7 million in guaranteed money for his efforts, but cut him last week to avoid paying another $7 million, opening up the potential for his return to Cincy.
Johnson, who has only one double-digit sack season in his six-year career, struggled to stay on the field in Tampa Bay, playing just 648 snaps (a five-year low for him) as he was dealing with a high ankle sprain for most of the season, while also being accused of not giving 100% when he did suit up. It’s worth bearing that in mind before getting too excited about his fantasy prospects.
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Johnson recorded just four sacks and two forced fumbles in his sole year in Tampa, and they preferred to cut him loose rather than stump up further guaranteed money, allowing a return to the team that drafted him. Although he will be back with the Bengals, his defensive coordinator from those high-point seasons, Mike Zimmer, is no longer calling the shots and is now the head coach in Minnesota. The current Bengals DC, Paul Guenther, has been on staff since 2005 and worked under Zimmer, and the 4-3 system he runs will be familiar to Johnson.
Aside from one good season in 2012 when he had 11.5 sacks and 53 total tackles (16th best fantasy defensive end that season), Johnson has often failed to deliver on his potential. His average output for the other five years of his career reads a wholly unimpressive 35.4 total tackles, 3.7 sacks, 0.4 interceptions and just 1 forced fumble per year, which places him squarely in the DE3 category. At 28 years of age he isn’t getting any younger either, although playing on a defensive line alongside the likes of Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins should mean he shouldn’t see too many double teams. He’ll also have to fight off competition from the raw and improving Margus Hunt (187 snaps last season), especially in obvious passing situations as he hasn’t proved himself to be the consistent pressure generator he was once thought to be.
Although a return to the Bengal organization does spell positive things for Johnson’s fantasy value, it doesn’t make him a must-own or even a sleeper in my mind. I’d like him as the third or fourth defensive end on my fantasy roster, but because he is a recognizable name in IDP circles I’d be worried that he’ll not fall far enough on draft day to be value. I’d be surprised to see him return to the top-end of the DE2 tier, instead he’s more likely to solidify himself as a top DE3 with a higher floor than most of his peers because of his decent tackle totals. Keep an eye on his playing time too, because if he starts losing out on too many passing downs to the likes of Hunt and Wallace Gilberry it makes him a candidate to be cut from your roster.
As for his teammates, Dunlap and Atkins have already accounted for themselves and shown they can be top tier fantasy assets at their positions. Dunlap ended the last two seasons as the No. 6 highest scoring defensive end, while Atkins outscored all his peers comfortably in 2012, before an injury cost him all of the 2013 season. He struggled to re-find his fantasy scoring form in 2014, ending the year as only the 12th highest scoring defensive tackle, but still earned positive grades from PFF (+11.6) suggesting he is capable of returning to his past glories. I wouldn’t give either player a direct boost to their fantasy outlook because of Johnson’s return, but I would have increased confidence that they can reproduce scoring that is near their career highs.
It could be argued that Johnson’s run defense is his strongest attribute, which would aid the fantasy value of the Bengals linebacking corps (Vontaze Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur and Rey Maualuga) in freeing them up to attack the ball carrier and quarterback, but again, it’s not notable enough to start bumping the aforementioned trio up your rankings in 2015. Instead find more reasons to promote other linebackers above them.
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