The Cincinnati Bengals will break for training camp in less than a month and will deal with high expectations that this franchise has been unaccustomed to for the majority of this decade. With a plethora of young talent, the Bengals have slowly turned the corner after several years in which the organization was most known for the problems its players faced off the field.
Now, owner Mike Brown must keep the nucleus intact by forming a roster that is playoff-caliber and will eventually compete for championships. However, if Brown wants to ever utilize this roster to its full potential and compete for championships, the time is now for one of the league's more frugal owners to lock up its star talent.
Brown appears to have his hands full with a few of his talented defensive linemen looking for new deals. All-Pro Geno Atkins is likely to be the team's biggest priority as he emerges as one of the game's elite defensive tackles.
Yet, the question remains if Brown will show the same commitment towards defensive end Michael Johnson, who is trending upwards in terms of his production.
At the age of 26, Johnson has elevated his performance during each of his four seasons in the league. He has also proven to stay relatively healthy, as he has played in every game throughout his career.
Though, it appears that it won't be enough for Johnson to earn a new extension. Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer believes that the fifth-year lineman will play out the season on the franchise tag for 11.2 million:
Although this development will not necessarily result in Johnson's departure, the odds don't appear to be in Cincinnati's favor. Johnson will command a lucrative contract out on the open market, and the franchise tag in 2014 could very well be reserved for Atkins.
However, the Bengals should make it a priority to secure the services of both pass-rushers, who are beginning the prime of their careers.
It is without question that Johnson will command a high-price task, as stated by Yahoo! Sports, but his presence in Mike Zimmer's defense makes him worth every penny.
Quarterbacks may win championships, but it has been proven that top-tier defenses can still effect outcomes in the postseason when the pass rush is in dominant form (e.g. 2007 and 2011 Giants).
The Bengals defense has been a model of consistency under Zimmer's watch, with Atkins and Johnson anchoring a quite young defensive front.
While Brown will face tough financial decisions with a few of their emerging stars over the next few years, he does not need to offer a record-breaking contract to quarterback Andy Dalton.
A third-year starter, Dalton has not assured himself of emerging as the franchise quarterback moving forward. Two straight appearances in the playoffs have led to first-round exits, with the defense doing its part to make up for the lack of production from the league's most crucial position.
Since a major amount of cap space doesn't need to be used at the quarterback position, the Bengals need to capitalize on the opportunity to secure Johnson as his most productive years seem to be ahead of him.
While the team contemplates allowing Johnson to join the free-agent market in 2014, a legitimate second option is re-signing defensive end Carlos Dunlap. He is two years younger than Johnson, and the Bengals could sign him at a cheaper rate before he breaks out for his contract year.
But the Bengals need to be weary about giving a multi-year extension to a guy who has never played a full season in the NFL, along with his highest sack total coming in his rookie season.
Ultimately, management has built an impressive roster by not emerging as major spenders and instead drafting quality players to fill the biggest weaknesses. They weren't major spenders this past offseason, with the most notable acquisition turning out to be signing Andre Smith to a cap-friendly deal.
However, if the Bengals ever wish to catapult themselves among the league's elite, they should make it a priority to re-sign a pass-rushing force who can be destined for stardom while in Cincinnati.
Matt Miselis is a NFL columnist for BleacherReport. Follow him on twitter @MattMiselisNFL.
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