With a simultaneously exciting (Pats overcome all obstacles to a 12-win season) and disappointing (ending in a Peyton Manning beatdown) season behind us, it’s time to start obsessing about what the New England Patriots will be doing this offseason.
One much-rumored target for New England is Cincinnati defensive lineman Michael Johnson. The 27-year-old Georgia Tech product was franchised last season by the Bengals, meaning that he will most likely hit free agency this spring, as franchising him for a second straight year means paying double the tag.
But is he a fit for New England? Let’s take a look:
Before we even talk about how talented Johnson is or how much money it would take to retain his services, do the Patriots need another veteran defensive lineman?
The short answer is yes. Because you can never have enough defensive linemen, as proved not just by the Seattle Seahawks’ resounding success this past season (with four starting caliber D-ends in Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, and Michael Bennett), but by the ridiculous snap counts that Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich had, leading to the Pats rushing to pick 34-year old Andre Carter up. The Patriots need to show improvement in their pass rush and run defense, and having another stud lineman can only help.
The longer answer? The need for Johnson might depend on how you look at not what the Patriots looked like last year, but how the should have looked. As it’s been repeated over and over again, losing Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork, and Jerod Mayo were not only devastating losses in their own right, but had a domino effect on the performances of their defensive cohorts.
Replacing Kelly and Wilfork with Chris Jones, Seaver Siliga, Joe Vellano, and Isaac Sopoaga meant more focus placed on Jones and Ninkovich by offensive lines. Losing Mayo meant second-year starter Dont’a Hightower taking on much of the responsibility for the linebacking corps in pass coverage and run defense, and was not cut loose as often as the Pats might have hoped.
Plug in Mayo and Wilfork (and perhaps even Kelly), hope for a second-year surge from young linebacker Jamie Collins, as well as further steps by Chandler Jones and Hightower, and you’ve got (in my opinion) one hell of a front seven.
That being said, how Mayo and Wilfork (especially Wilfork) return from injury is a concern, which is why a player like Johnson might be helpful. Having depth on the line (especially way-over-acheivers like Siliga and Chris Jones) is helpful, but having a negligible dropoff in talent as you sub in an defensive lineman could be a difference maker. The need is there.
The Player: To be more clear about the need: what the Patriots are looking for is an end that can kick in at tackle on 3rd down (this would mean the Patriots would also be looking for a run-stuffer tackle for 1st-2nd, something I’ve expanded upon here).
Johnson does satisfy this need, with some upside. Johnson had a fantastic 2012 season, with 11.5 sacks, before dropping off a bit this season (3.5 sacks). The biggest reason for this was the loss of stud linemate Geno Atkins to an ACL tear, leading to offensive lineman to focus on eliminating him, much like Chandler Jones and Wilfork this season.
The 6-7, 270 Johnson has impressive length, and would be both a nuisance at end while also having the strength to provide pass-rush at the tackle position on third down. Johnson has also had a lot of success in run defense. Like the Seahawks front-line, signing Johnson would give Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia a variety of different options and looks to throw at quarterbacks and keep them constantly under pressure, something the team struggled at times with this past year.
From the looks of it, Johnson would be a welcome addition to the New England Patriots. But…
The Money: Ah. That.
The Patriots money situation is a bit hazy at the moment. As of right now, they have just over $3.5 million in cap space. There are some players that are prime extension candidates (Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty, Stephen Gostkowski) as well as some players who could very likely be cut (Dan Connolly, Adrian Wilson, Isaac Sopoaga, and maybe even Tommy Kelly). It’s even possible that the Patriots could be freed from some of Aaron Hernandez’ salary, who’s on the books for $7.5 million. A somewhat conservative estimate for what the Patriots could have to spend is around $15 million.
Michael Johnson wouldn’t command that much, but certainly a significant chunk of it. Last year, Elvis Dumervil signed a 5 yr/26 mil contract (5.2 mil per) with the Baltimore Ravens and Cliff Avril signed a 2 yr/13 mil contract with the Seahawks (6.5 mil per). The Avril comparison is an interesting one: like Johnson, Avril put up some gaudy numbers in his time at Detroit, but some of this was attributed to the success of his linemates (for example, Ndamukong Suh). However, Avril erased all concerns with a terrific season in Seattle (8 sacks in a lot less snaps). This may also cause some teams to be less concerned about Johnson.
There are several prime defensive end/tackle free agents this offseason, including Greg Hardy, Michael Bennett, Lamarr Houston, Henry Melton, and Randy Starks, which could help keep Johnson’s salary reasonable. Still it’s more than easy to imagine the 27-year old getting somewhere in the 8-9 mil a year range.
The Verdict: That money thing may ruin Johnson’s chances at playing in a Patriots jersey. Not that Johnson’s salary would be ridiculous, but the Patriots’ need at end is maybe third on their list.
No. 1 and 2 on that list? Re-signing Aqib Talib, and re-signing Julian Edelman. Rangy shutdown corners don’t grow on trees and neither do receivers with chemistry with Tom Brady, who don’t currently incur his wrath. Both players are looking for a big payday after taking discounts last year, and both could find annual salaries in the 7-10 mil range. Having Johnson would be nice, but the Patriots should focus on their money elsewhere.
There’s also the fact that the need for a defensive lineman could be more easily filled in the draft than their need at receiver and cornerback. Three linemen that I highlighted in my draft profile were tackles Louis Nix III, DaQuan Jones, and Ra’Shede Hageman. The first two are huge run-stuffers who would help free up Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich (and allowing Chris Jones and Siliga to be third-down specialists) while Hageman could project as a pass-rush specialist both at tackle and end. Another player who I didn’t cover, and who I received the most (very angry) emails about, is Notre Dame lineman Stephon Tuitt, who has the size and strength to play tackle and the agility to play end. Tuitt could be available by the Patriots selection at #29 and maybe even the early 2nd round should the Pats trade up/down.
In the end, Michael Johnson would be a great addition to the team. His scheme versatility is huge, and, at 27, he’s still in his prime. But, as noted, the Patriots need to straighten out the Talib/Edelman situations before considering the free agent defensive lineman. Should one of those two fall through, he would have to be considered, but there are a number of other teams more likely to shell out big money than New England.
As much as I like his addition in theory, I just don’t see it happening.
Would you want to see Michael Johnson in New England? Are there other players you think Bill B. and Co. should be chasing after? Let me know on twitter @isportspeters or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll have upcoming free agent profiles and Patriots mock drafts in the upcoming months, which you can find there. Also, I’m still collecting questions for a mailbag, which you can send via email or on twitter!