Less than 48 hours after being released, Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson was back at Paul Brown Stadium earning a vote of confidence from his teammates as one of their chosen captains for the season.
The whirlwind of events that saw Johnson cut Saturday , only to be re-signed Monday, was more evidence of his worth to the team — as odd as that might seem.
Cincinnati, which opens the regular season Sunday at Indianapolis, had some decisions to make in getting the roster down to the 53-player limit by the NFL deadline. The corresponding move to Johnson’s re-signing – putting rookie cornerback Davontae Harris, a fifth-round draft pick, on Injured/Reserve-return – shed some light on the team’s intentions. Harris, who injured his knee this preseason, can later add depth in an area of need at a thin cornerback position.
“We had to make a decision with the roster, and we were able to work it out,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said.
Johnson, Cincinnati’s third-round draft pick in 2009, has spent eight of the last nine years with the Bengals and was set to become a free agent at the end of the season after signing a four-year deal in March 2015. As a vested veteran, his release sent him into free agency – instead of the waiver wire other players are subject to – and he was free to sign with any team.
The Bengals reportedly re-signed him to the same contract he would have played under this season, a one-year deal worth $6.1 million.
When asked how much trust there had to be between Johnson and the organization to be able to cut him and know he would be willing to return, Lewis said “probably a great deal.” He noted there are “probably only three or four other guys” with whom the team could have done something like that.
“He’s been one of the pillars of this football team throughout,” Lewis said of Johnson’s contributions to the team. “His play on Sundays and his preparation throughout the week, we’ve got some young guys at his position but his ability and what he does in his contribution on Sundays is great for this football team, great for the defense. He’s a great leader.”
Johnson did not want to discuss re-signing, but said in general terms he has no qualms about the decisions that have been made in terms of building the roster for now and the future, through the draft and signings.
“That’s not necessarily something I would speak on because the decisions made upstairs, they are going to make their decisions for the best interest of the team,” he said. “They’ve done that since I’ve been here, and I have no problem with any of the decisions they’ve made since I’ve been here. We’ve had success, and we’re looking to get back to that success. Everything they’ve done — are doing — is for the betterment of the team for us to be successful.”
Johnson wants to help the Bengals defensive line get back to its 2012 form when the defense set a franchise record with 51 sacks and ranked sixth in the league in yards allowed and eighth in points surrendered.
The rotation Cincinnati now has up front – with several young guys, such as rookie Sam Hubbard and second-year players Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis in the mix – is similar to the ways of that 2012 team, Johnson said. The Bengals finished 10-6 and was second in the AFC North in his fourth season.
“We’ve got talented players,” Johnson said. “Since I’ve been here I’ve been part of great defenses. We need to get back to that. We have the ability to do that, so that’s the goal. We’re going to go out and stop the run, get after the quarterbacks and play Bengals defense.”
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap said Johnson, who has 44 career sacks, is a big part of what the defense can do this season. Dunlap referred to him as the “mayor of the locker room,” and said he has been just as valued in the community with his charitable efforts.
Others also shared that sentiment, as evidenced by the decision to vote Johnson as a team captain Monday before the team began its preparations for the opener against the Colts.
“It’s very important to have him back, especially with the youth we have on this team,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “To get a guy that’s been around a long time, that knows how it’s done, knows how to get guys going, I feel like he’s great for this organization.”