- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- There was no shock in the news. No awe was inspired by the announcement. It was all expected.
For five years it was expected.
When the Cincinnati Bengals began laying the framework for their Mike Zimmer-led defense, a unit that in 2009 was only one year into being guided by the now former defensive coordinator, they were making a bold turn in philosophy. Yes, they wanted good linebackers. They wanted better-than-average cornerbacks and safeties if they could get them, too. But above all that, they wanted to build a defensive line that put unrelenting pressure on quarterbacks.
Michael Johnson was the guinea pig in Zimmer's grand experiment, one that a year later brought the likes of Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins to Cincinnati. Because of their youth, the trio of defensive linemen earned a nickname: "the Fisher Price defense."
The Fisher Price kids have grown up. Their bank accounts have matured.
One year after Dunlap and Atkins cashed in on long-term, multimillion-dollar deals, Johnson on Tuesday agreed to a five-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that's reportedly worth $43.75 million. The free-agent defensive end anticipates making $24 million of guaranteed money, according to ESPN's Josina Anderson. The approximate $8.75 million per year figure he'll be earning was higher than what the Bengals would have been able to match, particularly with offensive tackle Anthony Collins also a free-agent target of theirs. Quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Vontaze Burfict also have contracts that expire next year.
It has been a foregone conclusion since last March when Johnson was slapped with the team's franchise tag that he likely would be gone this offseason. A case also could be made that as far back as 2009, it was unlikely he would be a Bengals lifer. Then again, as long as they produced, the same could have been said for Dunlap or Atkins in 2010, too.
Back when he was drafted in the third round out of Georgia Tech, questions about Johnson's size, motor and durability hung over him. Some weren't sure how well he could translate long-term, so he dipped into the third round. Zimmer, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and their scouting staff saw something. Each believed he could project into the highly valued end he became the past two years. So they drafted him.
Similar sentiments could be expressed about Dunlap and Atkins. When Dunlap arrived, the second-round pick was pushed hard both publicly in practices and privately in meeting rooms by Zimmer, who foresaw more potential than the lineman initially put out. Atkins was a fourth-rounder who many didn't originally think had an NFL future simply because he waddled instead of walked like most defensive tackles.
Once all three began getting to quarterbacks and climbing up the Bengals' sack charts, though, the questions faded away. Johnson's motor suddenly was fine. Dunlap began pleasing Zimmer. Atkins' duck walk started drawing praise. The baby Bengals were going to be fully grown before too long. Holding on to each of them beyond their first deals was going to be virtually impossible.
Cincinnati began learning that lesson last offseason when it was faced with the unenviable task of trying to figure out how to bring back all three. Johnson was up for a new contract, but the Bengals didn't want to let him get away. Atkins and Dunlap had another year before their rookie contracts expired, but Cincinnati wanted them, too. So ownership made the difficult decision to tag Johnson while working out new deals for the other two (five years, $55 million for Atkins; five years, $40 million for Dunlap). At the same time, other steps were being taken to ensure the Bengals would be OK for that moment when Johnson, the eldest of their "Fisher Price" stars, decided it best to leave the nest. He loved Cincinnati, though, so the only way he would leave was was if the money just wasn't able to match up. After the Seahawks reportedly offered end Michael Bennett about $8 million per year Monday, it started getting even clearer that Johnson wouldn't be coming back to the Bengals.
As they anticipated Johnson's likely departure, the Bengals re-signed Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers last offseason while also drafting Margus Hunt in the second round. It was their belief that in the event Johnson would cost too much this year, at least they had a pair of veterans and another young but learning player to replace him with.
It was because of those steps that the Bengals can proudly bid farewell to the player who was the first and perhaps most crucial piece to the establishment of their young defensive line unit. It's much the same pride they felt when Zimmer, the man who built and nurtured the unit for five years, moved on to become a head coach for the first time in January. Like Zimmer, the expectation for Johnson's departure has been in the works for some time.
While there surely will be many in Cincinnati who will miss Johnson and his often-lauded charitable spirit, they must also know that his time simply had come. The leader of the young Bengals has, like the rest of them, grown up.