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Free agent snapshot: Michael Johnson

02.06.14 at 4:46 pm ET

When free agency begins in early March, there are a handful of players across the league who could appeal to New England. With the understanding that the status of these players could change because of the franchise or transition tag, here are a few possibilities for the Patriots to consider. We have to stress that all of these guys aren’€™t necessarily considered the elite of the free agent class –€” instead, they’re players we think would be a good fit in New England. So far, we’ve looked at Anquan Boldin, Emmanuel Sanders, Dennis Pitta, Eric Decker, Jacoby Jones, Arthur Jones and Brent Grimes. Now, it’€™s Michael Johnson.

Position: Defensive end
Age: 26 (will turn 27 on Feb. 7)
Height: 6-foot-7
Weight: 270 pounds

The skinny: Johnson was taken in the third round of the 2009 draft by the Bengals out of Georgia Tech, and the long, leanish lineman has grown into a key role in the Cincinnati defense. In five seasons, he has 26.5 career sacks, including 11.5 in 2012, his best year to date. Johnson has a lot going for him — he’€™s young, fairly durable (he’€™s played in 30 regular-season games the last two years, but was sidelined briefly this year because of a concussion) and has some positional versatility in the sense that he’€™s played both defensive end and defensive tackle. He has a reputation of occasionally taking plays off, but that won’€™t dissuade too many teams — he’€™ll likely enter the free agent market as a highly sought-after commodity because of his abilities to stop the run when needed, as well as get after the passer. The pass rush numbers dropped in 2013 (3.5 sacks), bit it’€™s also important to note that (according to Pro Football Focus) he had 40 quarterback hurries and 16 quarterback hits in 2013. (By way of comparison, according to PFF’€™s numbers, Johnson would have been second on the Patriots last season in hurries and first in hits.) The Patriots had some interest in Johnson last year before he was franchised, so he’€™s already popped up on New England’€™s radar screen. But the Patriots will likely be one of a handful of teams interested in pursuing Johnson, who will be an intriguing presence when free agency rolls around in March.

By the numbers: 7. Johnson tied for the league lead (with teammate Carlos Dunlap) in batted passes in 2013.

Why it would work: It’€™s believed that the Bengals are unlikely to franchise Johnson for a second straight season, as doing so would take an estimated $12 million and eat up a massive amount of their available cap space. In addition, Johnson’€™s ability to rush, as well as drop into coverage, could create an interesting dynamic on the New England defensive line, giving some relief to Chandler Jones. (Jones has occasionally struggled when asked to drop into coverage as the 4-3 defensive end.)

Why it might not work: It’€™s expected that Johnson is going to draw a serious payday, so if the Patriots wanted to try and make it work, they’€™d have to get very creative when it came to cap space. (On ESPN’€™s ‘€œNFL Insiders’€ Thursday, NFL columnist Adam Caplan suggested that Johnson might command ‘€œmaybe $10 million a year’€ on the open market.) There’€™s also a school of thought that some of Johnson’€™s success was tied in part to the presence of Geno Atkins, the elite level defensive lineman who spent a large part of the 2013 season on the same d-line. Because of the presence of Atkins, offensive lines had focused their efforts on stopping him to a point where Johnson was able to benefit. However, in 2013, Atkins went down with a season-ending knee injury in October — the domino effect meant more attention for Johnson, and, as a result, fewer overall sacks.

Quote: “€œIf you’€™re not believing and being positive, leave. We don’€™t need you. Because that’€™s what we’€™re about around here — staying focused, staying positive and keeping our energy going. Negativity breeds negativity, and we don’€™t do that around here. Stay with us and believe with us. That’€™s what you’€™re here for. You’€™re here for support. If something bad happens, that’€™s not our plan. Stay positive, stay encouraging. We’€™ll fight. Just stick with us a while.”€ — Johnson’€™s message to Cincinnati fans who were booing the Bengals late in the 2013 season

Our take: If New England went after Johnson, this would represent a pretty big splash. As we previously stated, considering the fact that the Bengals aren’€™t expected to franchise him, he’€™ll be out there. Johnson is one of the best defensive players available on the market, and will command a sizable payday. One potential landing spot for Johnson might be Minnesota — his old defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, recently got the job as head coach of the Vikings, and would likely love the idea of bringing Johnson with him to Minnesota. There’€™s also talk of the Georgia native wanting to go home and play for the Falcons. Regardless, if the Patriots do decide to jump in, the addition of Johnson would be a defensive splash in free agency the likes of which New England hasn’€™t made since Rosevelt Colvin (2003) or Adalius Thomas (2007).

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