UPDATE: Friday, March 1 at 1:55 p.m. ET by Matt Fitzgerald
The Bengals' official Twitter page broke the news officially this afternoon:
Cincinnati Bengals @Bengals
We have designated DE Michael Johnson as the team’s franchise player for 2013. #Bengals2013-3-1 18:46:17
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Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter
They haven't officially done so yet, but Bengals are planning to use franchise tag on DE Michael Johnson.2013-3-1 17:09:28
This is a move that the Bengals can definitely afford to make, as they entered the offseason with a league-high $55.1 million in cap room (h/t ESPN). As Chris Wesseling of NFL.com indicated on Thursday, the figure moved from $120.6 million to $123 million to give teams slightly more flexibility.
Johnson is among several marquee free agents that the Bengals have to make tough decisions on, but retaining him was clearly a big priority, as he got the tag over RT Andre Smith.
At 6'7" and 270 pounds with stunning athleticism for his size, the 2009 third-round pick enjoyed a career-year in Cincinnati in 2012. Finally settling in at defensive end after some prior experiments at linebacker, he racked up 11.5 sacks—nearly doubling his prior career total.
Lined up on the weak side next to All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who had 12.5 sacks himself, the tandem was a nightmare for opposing offensive line units on the left side.
Atkins' presence helps draw double-teams, which frees up Johnson on the outside. His combination of speed and quickness make him a load to handle for left tackles isolated on the edge.
This is an especially savvy move by Cincinnati, because it is possible that Johnson could have a drop-off from this big year should he have netted a lucrative, long-term deal.
By keeping him on the hook for one more season while still paying him just over $11 million, Johnson will need to prove himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber player again before the Bengals commit to him for a multi-year contract.