Updated: 3 p.m.
With an eye to keeping intact one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, the Bengals put the franchise tag on right end Michael Johnson to virtually secure his services for the 2013 season with a one-year offer in the $11 million range.
The tag gives the Bengals the right to match any offer with compensation two first-round picks.
It's believed Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn approached Johnson's agent to discuss a long-term deal in the last few weeks and that they'll continue to talk with the Chicago-based Rick Smith. They have until July 15 to negotiate a longer deal.
Once Johnson signs the tender, a figure computed by a formula in the collective bargaining agreement, he's guaranteed the money. Johnson indicated last month he plans to participate in the spring workouts, but he won't return until he finishes the spring semester at Georgia Tech in early May.
"This is not going to be an acrimomious situation at all," Smith said. "Michael is a proud member of the Cincinnati Bengals and I've got a lot of respect for the Brown family. By the time the league came out with the numbers, there just wasn't a lot of time to do a deal. That's a big number. The only bigger franchise number is for the quarterbacks. We'll keep talking. But this was a way to slow things down. 'Hey, we value you,' and we'll see what happens."
Johnson, 26, had a career year in 2012 with 11.5 sacks on a line-leading 923 snaps, or 89 percent of the defensive plays. He teamed with two-time Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins to become the first Bengals tandem to log double-digit sacks in the same season in 31 years.
Johnson is also highly regarded by the organization off the field, where he's one of the most visible Bengals in the community. He's not only active through his own foundation that works with youth in Cincinnati and his hometown of Selma, Ala., but also with Most Valuable Kids.
"Obviously we are committed to re-signing Mike," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said in a news release, "and this move is part of the process to keep a young and promising defense together. Mike has worked hard to improve himself every year during his time as a Bengal, helping us to the postseason three of four years. We have every reason to believe he will continue to grow as a leader and productive player."
Johnson, a third-round pick in 2009 out of Georgia Tech, bulked up last year during an intensive offseason program and responded with one of the best seasons in Bengals history. While Johnson and Atkins had the most sacks by a Bengal since 1983, he also continued his streak of never missing a game while racking up at least 700 snaps for the second straight season. He has 23 career sacks as well as 18 tipped passes, and was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week last season when he sacked Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III three times and pressured him five others during a 38-31 road victory.
"This guy has come up in our system, he plays about 85 percent of our snaps, and he's the kind of guy we love to have around," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said in the release. "He's hard-working and a great team player. He's an outstanding run defender in addition to his pass rush production. He's got great length and size, and great speed off the edge."
Atkins, who led all NFL interior players with 12.5 sacks, is heading into the final year of his contract, as is left end Carlos Dunlap. Both also had AFC Defensive Player of the Week outings last season and are also believed to be on the Bengals radar as they try to get their young stars in the fold before next season for a defense that ranked seventh in the NFL last season.
The Bengals reportedly had $40 million to spend under the salary cap when free agency opens March 12, but now the estimated $11 million is gone with the Johnson tag and now the next priority looks to be re-signing right tackle Andre Smith. Lewis said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine that the focus in free agency is retaining their own players, and also in the team's plans appears to be securing two of its top three cornerbacks, Terence Newman and Adam Jones, as well as veteran left end Robert Geathers, among others.
Also budgeted is an estimated $5 million for up to possibly 10 draft picks, $4 million for restricted players, as well as a $5 million reserve for injuries and incentive bonuses.