As expected, the deadline for NFL teams to place franchise/transition tags on free agents came and went Monday afternoon without the Cincinnati Bengals making a move.
Defensive end Michael Johnson is officially headed for free agency. The unrestricted free agent will now be able to sign with whichever team makes him the offer that he feels is best. The same goes for offensive tackle Anthony Collins.
The free-agency period officially begins March 11.
If the Bengals are able to sway either or both of their highly-priced free agents to stay, they will do so at a bargain of sorts. For example, instead of paying Johnson -- Cincinnati's 2013 designation -- the more than $13 million he would be due this coming season as a franchise player, they will now be able to lock him up to a longer-term deal that will pay him much less per year. He still could be in the $7 or $8 million per year range, but that's much more manageable than paying him $13 million in 2014, only to wonder whether to come back and try again to sign him to a longer-term deal in 2015.
With a salary cap that keeps trending higher and higher across the coming seasons, the Bengals are better suited now to work on a longer-term deal for Johnson and/or Collins than they once believed. After originally expected to hover around $126 million, the 2014 league salary cap will be $133 million, giving the Bengals more room as they try to re-sign players from this year and start looking to inking future free agents soon, too. Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Domata Peko, James Harrison, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Terence Newman are among the several Bengals who would be due new contracts after this coming season.
Because of the high number and high caliber of 2015 free agents, the Bengals would like to hold on to some of their cash this year in order to start making those deals now before they get too backlogged. That's one big reason why even though Johnson and Collins avoided getting tagged, they still may not be wearing stripes this fall. The Bengals may just find that they don't have enough in their coffers to keep these two and re-sign this offseason the one or two others on the horizon.
Dalton and Green are 2015's most likely considerations to receive new contracts this offseason.
The lack of a franchise tag on Johnson and Collins also wasn't a surprise because the writing has been on the wall for some time. Even though both were raised in the organization -- Collins was a 2008 draft pick, Johnson a 2009 third-round selection -- it was starting to become clear last season that their days as Bengals were possibly nearing an end. Collins had such a strong sixth season as the offensive line's sixth man that as the year went on, his price tag went higher. The odds of him staying in the Queen City became increasingly less favorable as a result.
Johnson was arguably better in 2012 than he was in 2013, but his size, knack for deflecting passes at the line and relative youth have made him a coveted free agent this year nonetheless. It stands to reason that if he doesn't re-sign with the Bengals he'll likely follow former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to Minnesota. Zimmer now serves as the head coach of a Vikings team that has a veteran free agent defensive end in Jared Allen. As Zimmer looks to place his imprint on the franchise, who better to help than one of his top former players? Cincinnati will make as good a pitch as it can to prevent that from happening.
The addition of Margus Hunt in last year's draft also was a sign the Bengals were preparing for a future without Johnson. It's a future that, extra salary-cap money included, appears will exist.
If Johnson comes back, it will mark the second time in as many years that a Bengal returned for a longer-term deal the year after he held franchise tag status. Kicker Mike Nugent signed a two-year deal last offseason after earning the franchise tag in 2012.