The Bengals have two high-priority free agents in offensive tackle Andre Smith and defensive end Michael Johnson. The problem is, Cincinnati can only place the franchise tag on one of them. The Bengals will have to make a decision between now (teams could apply the tag starting Monday) and March 4 (the deadline to use it).
While it's a close call, the Bengals need to keep Smith off the free-agent market. He's been the league's best right tackle for the past two seasons. Few would have predicted this after watching him struggle in his first two seasons (and having that shirtless run at the combine ingrained in their memory).
But Smith has turned his career around, becoming a strong blocker in the running game as well as in pass protection. He has lived up to the expectations of being a first-round pick in 2009. Last season, he allowed a total of nine hits on the quarterback and committed four penalties. The biggest knock on Smith this year came off the field, when he was arrested last month at an Atlanta airport for being in possession of a handgun as he went through security.
There is certainly an argument to put the tag on Johnson. He finished second on the Bengals with 11.5 sacks and made an impact on run defense. The concern is whether or not Johnson peaked in a contract year. His 2012 sack total nearly doubled his previous career high of six. Johnson had always shown flashes in his first three seasons before last season's breakout one. It was only 2011 when Johnson lost his starting job to Frostee Rucker, who is now a free agent after being released by the Browns.
The Bengals should place the tag on Smith, which will cost them $9.66 million this year, because he's played at a higher level for the past two seasons. It would also be easier for the Bengals to replace Johnson than Smith. But, considering the Bengals' large amount of salary-cap room, they shouldn't lose Johnson or Smith this offseason. There is no reason for the Bengals to let either of these players walk like they did with Justin Smith and Johnathan Joseph.
When it comes to the tag, the Bengals can make a legitimate case to put the tag on Smith or Johnson. The biggest mistake they could make is not using the tag on anyone.