The Cincinnati Bengals announced they have put the franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson and not offensive tackle Andre Smith, a tough decision that is a mild surprise but makes sense in many ways.
While there was speculation that Smith was the favorite to get the tag (I believed that as well), the Bengals chose to put the $11.175 million tag on Johnson. The deadline to use the tag is Monday.
There are a couple ways to interpret the Bengals' decision. They could see Johnson as the more valuable talent or the more irreplaceable player (there are more offensive tackles available than pass-rushers). Or perhaps Cincinnati feels it has a better chance of reaching a long-term deal with Smith.
My take is the Bengals have enough salary-cap room -- the most in the NFL, in fact -- to keep both players and should be able to outbid anyone if they truly want to keep Smith. He was the best right tackle in football last season. If the Bengals keep the tag on Johnson this season, the move forces Johnson to prove himself again by keeping him for one more year with the tag instead of investing a long-term deal in him.
Johnson had a breakout season with 11.5 sacks in 2012. There has to be a concern whether or not Johnson peaked in a contract year. His 2012 sack total nearly doubled his previous career high of six. The Bengals could still strike a long-term agreement with Johnson, but the tag gives them the choice to see if Johnson can produce the same way again.
Still, the Bengals don't have a great history when it comes to the franchise tag. Before using the tag on kicker Mike Nugent in 2012, the previous three players tagged by the Bengals -- defensive lineman Justin Smith, offensive lineman Stacy Andrew and kicker Shayne Graham -- have departed the following season.