Updated: 11:45 a.m.
The Bengals were supposed to go offense in this draft, but they began Sunday by picking their second defensive player with Georgia Tech end Michael Johnson, a 6-7, 265-pounder that began the process a few months ago as a top 10 selection. In his first season as a starter last year he racked up nine sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss, as well as seven pass deflections.
"This kid is a tremendous athlete," said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "He doesn't play hard all the time. It's our job as coaches to get him to do it all the time."
With the first three picks, the Bengals did attack two of their worst stats from 2008: sacks allowed per pass and sacks generated per pass, but they had yet to emerge with a center as they headed to their pick in the bottom of the third round at No. 98.
The Bengals believe Johnson's lack of down-to-down intensity is the major reason he fell down the draft boards and deciding not to play in the Senior Bowl didn't help. But Zimmer and head coach Marvin Lewis were impressed that he drove to Mobile, Ala., to meet with them even though he wasn't in the game and they were even more impressed with the interview.
"He was told that he was going to be a real high pick and if he played that he could mess it up. Extremely bad advice," Zimmer said. "He's a tremendous kid. Top of the line. He's a nice kid."
Zimmer was extremely impressed with Johnson's Pro Day on campus, particularly his speed and wingspan. Some of his measurables: A 4.5-second 40-yard dash, 28 reps of 225 pounds and a 38.5-inch vertical leap. The Bengals feel like if they can develop Johnson, they've got a potential double-digit sack guy in the mold of long, lean late-blooming pass rushers like Jason Taylor.
"The greatest pass rushers in history have that kind of wingspan," said Zimmer, who is not saying Johnson is exactly that. "I'm not saying he's the best athlete in the draft. But he's an athlete. Coaches always think mold this guy, mold that guy. Well, I'm hoping I can mold this kid."
Zimmer and defenisve line coach Jay Hayes are looking at Johnson as a third-down rush guy, but Zimmer also said he'll try him at linebacker, too (maybe the SAM spot), but with the idea of putting his hand on the ground on third down.
"We can use him as a stand-up dropdown guy and he can help us on third down," Zimmer said.
Bill Tobin, the area scout, compared Johnson physically to such well-known pass rushers as Richard Dent and Ted Hendricks. Zimmer says Johnson's dimensions also remind him of a Pro Bowl outside pass rusher the Cowboys drafted when he was the coordinator in DeMarcus Ware.
"Very similar," Zimmer said. "He's bigger, he's not as thick. He's a thin-hipped kid. He's narrow waisted. He's probably a defensive end for us, but we might mess around, just to see. ... He's an intriguing guy because he could probably be a hell of an outside 3-4 backer and he can be both (an end and backer)."
When Lewis handed the phone to Zimmer after he told Johnson he was a Bengal, Zimmer told him, "You're going to have to prove a lot of people wrong."
Johnson knows fellow Tech product Eric Henderson and they look to now be competing for the same end/backer spot. Hayes can see a scenario Johnson is on the field with rush ends Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom.