has 20 sacks in three NFL seasons despite starting just two career games. (Michael Keating/AP)
The Cincinnati Bengals did not seem bothered by the thought of losing franchised DE Michael Johnson to free agency after this season.
And here's why: because Cincinnati has Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. Cincinnati reportedly handed Dunlap a six-year, $40 million deal Monday, after passing on extending Johnson's contract.
The contracts of both the 24-year-old Dunlap and the 25-year-old, two-time Pro Bowler Atkins were set to expire after the 2013 season. Had the Bengals given Johnson a lucrative, extended contract, they would have had an extremely hard time keeping Dunlap and Atkins, too, with the former the likelier bet to be the odd man out.
Losing Atkins is not really an option. He's coming off a dominating 12.5-sack season that earned him a First-Team All-Pro nod. Had it not been for J.J. Watt's unfathomable 2012 season, Atkins would have had a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year. The Bengals wanted to leave their options open with Atkins -- as of right now, they could get him signed long-term (as they'll likely try to do) or they can use the 2014 franchise tag to keep him in the fold.
So, that left Johnson and Dunlap. Johnson, off an 11.5-sack season, certainly warranted a long-term investment.
The Bengals, though, believe Dunlap has a higher ceiling. A 2010 second-round pick out of Florida, Dunlap has 20 sacks in his three NFL seasons ... and has started just two career games. He should crack the starting lineup in 2013 and, if not, definitely would inherit Johnson's spot come next season.
This is a calculated gamble on the Bengals' part. Johnson is just 26 years of age and, by all accounts, wanted to stick around in Cincinnati beyond the 2013 season. To do so now, he'd probably have to take well below market value, especially if he follows up his strong 2012 with an equally impressive 2013. And Dunlap may prove to be better in the rotational role the Bengals have used him in thus far (he played nearly 300 snaps less than Johnson last season).
All the signs, though, point to Dunlap being a game-changing defensive end in this league for years to come. And the Bengals are willing to lose Johnson in the near future to reap those benefits.