Price tag high for Johnson
Contract makes newcomer one of highest-paid centers in NFL
Kent Somers
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 6, 2007 09:55 AM

Cardinals fans weren't the only ones getting antsy as they watched other teams add players in the first few days of free agency while the Cardinals stayed on the sidelines.

"Listen," coach Ken Whisenhunt said Monday evening, "as hard as it is on them, it's hard on us, too, when you see all these people getting signed and certainly when you see some of the money that some of these guys are getting."

If there was some sticker shock, the Cardinals got over it Monday, adding their first new face in free agency by signing former Dallas center Al Johnson, and making him one of the highest paid centers in the league. advertisement

Johnson's four-year contract is worth a total of $17.5 million, including a $3.5 million signing bonus and salaries of $3.5 million each year, according to an NFL source.

The deal is worth more than the one recently signed by Giants center Shaun O'Hara, which is worth about $3.8 million a year. Dallas' Andre Gurode is the highest paid center now. His new contract is worth about $5 million a year. Johnson was Gurode's backup last year.

Until this free agent period, Minnesota's Matt Birk was believed to be the NFL's highest paid center at $4.3 million a year.

The market for offensive linemen soared in the opening days of free agency.

"Some of these deals, because of the way that things have gone this weekend, have gotten a little bit more involved or complicated, so it's taken a little more time," Whisenhunt said.

Johnson will be paid like a starter, even though he'll compete for the job with Nick Leckey, the incumbent. Whisenhunt is looking to create competition and depth all along the offensive line, and Johnson's signing is the first step toward fulfilling that goal.

"He's a veteran guy who has shown he can play at a good level, and I think he fits the mold of the kind of player we're looking for," Whisenhunt said.

The Cardinals are familiar with Johnson because four of Whisenhunt's assistants worked in Dallas while Johnson was there.

The Cowboys drafted Johnson out of Wisconsin in the second round in 2003, and he was slated to start as a rookie before suffering a knee injury in training camp. He underwent microfracture surgery and was placed on injured reserve. He started 31 games over the next two seasons, beating out Andre Gurode for the job in 2005.

Last year, however, Johnson lost the starting job to Gurode. Johnson was benched because former coach Bill Parcells wanted a bigger player at center. That's ironic, because Johnson was attractive to the Cardinals because of his size.

At 6 feet 5 and 311 pounds, Johnson is taller and heavier than Leckey.

With Monday's visits by two defensive backs, six players from other teams have visited the Cardinals over the past few days. Until Johnson came to terms, the only players who had signed with the club were two who were already on the roster: backup running back Marcel Shipp and backup safety Hanik Milligan.

"I wish we could sign every one of them," Whisenhunt said of the six visitors, "but obviously you can't.

The Cardinals have made an offer to Cincinnati tight end Reggie Kelly. The Cardinals were expected to make an offer to Philadelphia cornerback Roderick Hood on Monday, according to an NFL source.

St. Louis cornerback Travis Fisher and Cincinnati safety Kevin Kaesviharn visited Monday.