Free Agent Focus: Michael Johnson
I want to start out with Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, where rumors emerged during Senior Bowl week that he was on the Falcons’ radar. Johnson played his college ball in Atlanta at Georgia Tech and signing with the Falcons would represent a homecoming for him.
He’s been a regular starter for the Bengals since midway through his second season (2010). He only started five games in 2011, losing snaps to Frostee Rucker on run downs, but he still logged the second-most snaps of any defensive lineman that season behind only Geno Atkins.
Johnson has grown a lot over his time in Cincinnati, beginning his career as a talented, but raw third-round pick in 2009. He’s steadily improved each year, and having just turned 27, he has developed into a solid, all-around defensive end.
Johnson is coming off a down year in terms of his sack production. After tallying 11.5 sacks in a breakout 2012 campaign, his total fell to 3.5 in 2013. But per Pro Football Focus, he saw an increase in his combined hits and hurries, improving from 42 to 58. But Johnson has not consistently shown he’s a sack artist throughout his career, suggesting that 2012 was the outlier rather than the norm. Over the past 55 games where he’s logged starter’s reps, Johnson has tallied a total of 23 sacks, which extrapolates to about 6.5 for every 16 games.
- Has a good first step to provide effective speed rush off the edge
- Athletic with long arms and ideal frame and build for NFL DE
- Can play with his hand off the ground, as well as drop into coverage vs. TEs
- Can make plays against the run, particularly when working in pursuit
- Lacks elite speed to be an effective edge rusher against top-level OTs
- Limited array of effective pass rush moves. Bull rush is largely ineffective and tends to overly rely on speed and first-step quickness
- Despite athleticism, not overly comfortable or natural when working in space
- Can get pushed around at the point of attack when playing the run
How He Fits in Atlanta…
Johnson is not a dominant player, mainly just a complementary pass rusher. He’s the type of guy that can be a very effective second or third option in a pass rush, but not the type that can be the “lead dog” on a quality pass rush. He’s an upgrade over a player like Osi Umenyiora, but more than likely the Falcons would still field one of the league’s weakest pass rushes if he was their primary edge pass rusher.
There is a lot about Johnson that is reminiscient of Ray Edwards when he played for the Minnesota Vikings. Namely, the fact that he is third wheel on a top-notch defensive line headlined by the likes of Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. Similar to how Edwards was behind Jared Allen and Kevin Williams in Minnesota. Like Edwards, Johnson is a speed rusher that lacks top-level speed that has a tendency to prey on inexperienced or weak tackles. Johnson has had his motor questioned when he was coming out of school and during his early seasons in Cincinnati when his production wasn’t great. I think those concerns are largely overblown at this point in his career. In Edwards, while he didn’t have a lacking motor, his failure in Atlanta had a lot to do with a questionable passion for the game. He seemed to be a player that was more concerned with the benefits and trappings of being a professional athlete, than being a player that loved the game. I don’t know enough about Johnson to know how he stacks up in that regard, but at least as far as the player goes on the field, he and Edwards share similar traits and backgrounds.
The positives about Johnson are mainly his athleticism and potential versatility in that he could be used in a variety of ways for a creative defensive coordinator like Mike Nolan. He’s most natural and effective lining up in wider techniques and rushing up the field from the right side, but he’s shown the ability to play on either side of the line. He’s ideally suited for the right side since he’s not a great point of attack run defender, but he could also be well-suited to play on the left because he would face lesser tackles and benefit from more favorable matchups. He’s also able to drop into coverage, although he’s not a guy that is capable of doing that a ton. But his length makes him an effective jammer of tight ends at the line of scrimmage that could be used well to chuck players like Jimmy Graham and allow other defenders to cover him on the back-end. His length also is a valuable asset in that it allows him to bat down a large number of passes, as he had nine pass deflections in 2013.
Johnson would be a nice addition to the Falcons, but the main drawback is that the likelihood that he will receive a substantial long-term deal, potentially sets him up for a scenario reminiscent of Edwards where expectations are much higher than they should be. Johnson simply isn’t a sack machine, and is the sort of player that while he can get a steady amount of pressure, is more in line with the sort of guy that may only tally a half dozen sacks most years. Prospective teams that are looking to sign Johnson need to remember that there is a reason why the Bengals prioritized getting Dunlap and Atkins locked up to long-term deals, while settling to tag Johnson with little expectation that a long-term deal would get worked out. It’s the exact same mentality the Vikings had when it came to deciding whether to lock up Edwards to a long-term deal.
If the Falcons are targeting Johnson, it should be with the idea that he is just the first step in a two-step process to upgrade the pass rush with that second step likely going to come with the team’s pick in the first round. Teaming Johnson up with a player like Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack would be better suited to make Johnson a success in Atlanta. But if the Falcons sign Johnson believing that he’s going to single-handedly make a substantial upgrade to their pass rush in 2014, they are setting themselves up for another free agent disappointment along the same lines as Umenyiora and Edwards.