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Bengals use tag on DE Johnson

The Cincinnati Bengals placed the franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson on Friday, a move that guarantees the free agent a 2013 salary of $11.175 million if he agrees to sign the tender, making him the highest-paid player on the team.

Johnson and agent Rick Smith have until July 15 to work out a longer contract.

“This was a way for the Bengals to make a statement that Michael Johnson is a core player of their team,” Smith said. “They don’t want to lose him. They don’t want to expose him to the market place, and we’re going to do everything it takes to lock him up on a long-term basis.

“This is not going to be acrimonious,” Smith continued. “We are going to have very professional discussions like we’ve had before. Katie Blackburn (Bengals executive VP) and I have been in conversations since the season was over, trying to figure all of this out. The problem that we were having is that we were projecting between a $122 and $123 million (salary) cap, and when you take the defensive end percentage of that, toward the franchise number, it’s an extremely high number. We just frankly ran out of time.”

Teams have until Monday to decide whether to use the franchise tag.

As a free agent, Johnson still has the right to negotiate with other teams, but the franchise-player designation means that should he sign elsewhere, the Bengals could retain him by matching the offer. And should the Bengals decline to match a competing offer, the team signing Johnson would be required to give the Bengals two first-round draft choices.

“Obviously we are committed to re-signing Mike,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said in a press release. “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.”

The 26-year-old Johnson, whom the Bengals selected in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft out of Georgia Tech, recorded a career-high 11.5 sacks last season for a defense that ranked seventh in the league. The 11.5 sacks were the second-highest total by a Cincinnati player since 1983, topped only be the 12.5 defensive tackle Geno Atkins recorded in 2012, making them the first Bengals teammates to register double-digit sacks in the same season since 1981 (Reggie Williams and Eddie Edwards).

“(Johnson) 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.”

Smith said Johnson is glad to be in Cincinnati and hopes to remain with the team beyond 2013.

“He’s extremely happy,” Smith said. “Any player’s success is tied toward natural ability and the system you play under, and he absolutely loves playing under Marvin and Mike Zimmer’s system. He’s perfect for it and does a great job in it.

“These are extremely large numbers, and you just have to take a little time to get through it,” Smith continued. “You just have to keep grinding away and see what you can come up with. It’s a really nice statement for a team to tell you you’re a franchise player. That’s a really strong statement, and he appreciates their sentiments in a lot of ways.”

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