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In Bengals' push to retain free agents, they use Michael Johnson as example

Michael Johnson left the Bengals as a free agent in 2014. After spending one season in Tampa Bay, he was cut and says he is happy to be back in Cincinnati. Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- As the NFL combine winds down, the Cincinnati Bengals' big push to retain key unrestricted free agents begins.

For a team that feasts on continuity and is coming off a 12-4 regular season and another playoff appearance, the number it wants to retain is quite large. In a perfect world, the Bengals say they would like to re-sign all 14 players, but they know cap concerns and individual players' desires to stay or go are at play, too.

"It's always a challenge because it's a two-way street," Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said at the combine this week. "The players have to want to come back, and you've got to have enough room under the cap."

A perfect example of the tricky balance of retention is Michael Johnson's story. Two offseasons ago, Johnson was a key free agent Cincinnati wanted to keep. But at 27 and fresh off a franchise-tag year, Johnson was in prime position to test the market and see if another team would give him a truly massive payday. He was just beginning to prove his value as an edge-rusher and was entering the prime of his career. He had no choice but to see just how much he could fetch.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him to a five-year, $43.75 million deal that far exceeded the Bengals' price range.

So off went Johnson to a team with a new head coach that had only won four games the season before. The money might have been great, but Johnson's overall experience in Tampa was far from it. He had to assimilate to a new system, overcome an early season ankle injury, carry the burden of being the star of a defense that had been built via free agency, and adapt to an organization that was trying to figure out how to win. In his first five seasons in Cincinnati, Johnson had been to the playoffs three times and was one of many rising stars on a defensive line that had been built through the draft.

One year after signing his big Buccaneers deal, Johnson was cut and back on the market again.

Cincinnati swooped in and got him back for a significantly reduced deal. But as Johnson said often this past season, being back in Bengals stripes gave him a comfort he never really had in Tampa.

The Bengals hope some of this year's pending free agents have had heart-to-hearts with Johnson.

"They have to be content with their role that they had this year, first," Tobin said. "Then they've got to look around and see some examples maybe of guys that did leave and it didn't work out for them; where it wasn't a one-to-one transfer in terms of production or opportunity or coaching or whatever it is, and then they wanted to come back.

"It's incumbent upon the guys that are doing this for the first time to really explore with some of the veterans about 'is the grass really greener?' or all things equal, 'is it best to stay with what you know?'"

Consider that a message meant specifically for Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, George Iloka and Vincent Rey. Like Johnson two years ago, each is entering the window of their career when their earning potential might be at its highest point.