With the offseason here, we've been spending the past week taking a position-by-position review of the Cincinnati Bengals' 2013 season and give a sneak peek at what may lie ahead in 2014.
2014 free agents: Michael Johnson.
The good: Just like their teammates on the defensive line's interior, the Bengals' ends had a strong year in 2013, too. Sacks were high, as were passes deflected at the line of scrimmage. Johnson was the best at knocking down balls that tried to break the line's plane, swatting a league-high eight. Two of those deflections led to interceptions. One of them, a pickoff by linebacker James Harrison against Cleveland, kicked off a comeback that resulted in a 41-20 Bengals win. The other produced a fourth-quarter interception by cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick that essentially sealed a win over the Ravens in the regular-season finale. Another Johnson deflection iced Cincinnati's Week 3 win over Green Bay. Along with his knack for getting a hand or finger on the football, fellow ends Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry combined for 15 sacks.
The bad: Like the defensive tackles, there wasn't much bad that occurred on the ends' watch in 2013. Both played key roles in allowing the Bengals to have the league's third-ranked defense. The only real "bad" per se is the fact that this group had to go through the season knowing it likely would look somewhat different next season. Chances are high that with his franchise tag expiring, Johnson will not get re-signed later this offseason. The Bengals had to play all year amid concerns about the odds he returns.
The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Dunlap ($8.6 million), Geathers ($2.7 million), Gilberry ($1.7 million), Hunt ($834,341), Christo Bilukidi ($570,000). Johnson's contractual status will create the real intrigue this offseason. Last year, it was Dunlap who made headlines after getting locked up to a long-term deal that will keep him in Cincinnati through the 2018 season. With the aging Geathers and Gilberry and Hunt locked up through 2015 (and 2016 in Hunt's case), the defensive ends are rather strong as far as establishing future depth is concerned. If Johnson isn't with the club later this fall, expect Geathers to take over his role as the starting right end opposite Dunlap on the left. Gilberry, who played both defensive end and tackle this season, has the ability to play virtually anywhere on the line, and will be used extensively in various packages and rotations again next year. Hunt is expected to fill Johnson's shoes as the rising contributor at the end position, although an end could be coming in the draft, too, with Johnson's departure. Bilukidi has another year left on his contract.
Draft priority: Moderate. The Bengals' draft priority depends mostly upon what happens with Johnson. If by some minor miracle he's able to stay, they don't need to shore up the position via the draft. But, assuming he is gone, they may look to add an end in the draft who could be paired with Dunlap and Hunt as part of another rotation in the coming seasons.