Geno Atkins has been unbelievable in Cincinnati. As Atkins approaches free agency next offseason, the Bengals must pay whatever it takes to keep him.
The Bengals are facing a lot of difficult financial decisions heading into this season. As we’ve already noted here on Stripe Hype, two key defensive players will be free agents next season. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap has been a force on the Bengals’ line for nearly a decade, and Darqueze Dennard became a crucial secondary weapon following a breakout last year. Even still, their extensions still fall short of what defensive tackle Geno Atkins will make next season.
Atkins has cemented himself as one of the elite defensive tackles – if not the best – in the NFL. The Bengals took Atkins, a Georgia Bulldog, in the fourth round pick of the 2010 NFL Draft. After one season as a backup, Atkins became a tour de force. In just his second season, he notched 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Atkins has put together four seasons with 9 or more sacks and consistently leads defensive tackles in sacks. In every season besides his rookie year and his injury-shortened year, Atkins has made the Pro Bowl. Advanced metrics, like PFF, also love Atkins. He always grades out as one of the most impactful defensive players every season according to PFF.
Players like Atkins don’t grow on trees. Atkins is a classic 3-technique defensive tackle who can blow up running lanes like a host tackle and hit the QB at the rate of an edge rusher. Very few players have as versatile and as impactful a skill set as Atkins. In fact, you could probably count on one hand the number of defensive tackles who can match Atkins pound for pound. Therefore, letting him go would be catastrophic. The Bengals have to make it their number one priority to resign Atkins this offseason and ensure that he is the centerpiece of this defense.
When the Bengals extended Atkins following the 2012 season, they gave him a hefty contract. Although Atkins was a fourth-round pick, he had just put up 12.5 sacks and made his second Pro Bowl. Clearly, he was deserving of his 5-year, $53 million extension. In the last year of that $10.6 million per year deal, Atkins is now assuredly making less than his market value. According to Spotrac, he ranks 11th among just defensive tackles in yearly salary. Though players like Fletcher Cox and Gerald McCoy make more, so do players like Michael Brockers and Timmy Jernigan. Atkins’ next contract will certainly pay him more in line with his current elite production.
A good template for Atkins’ payday is the recent contracts signed by McCoy and Cox. When hypothesizing about the best defensive tackle in the league, the debate centers around those three guys (plus LA’s Aaron Donald, who’s still on his rookie deal). McCoy inked a 6-year, $95 million deal two years ago, putting him near the top of the market. Cox one-upped McCoy a year later, earning himself a 6-year, $103 million contract. While $16-17 million a year is a massive figure, these guys are critical to a 4-3 defensive scheme, wreaking havoc on all three downs.
The Bengals should have zero issues finding the space to extend Atkins. They have roughly $18 million in cap space this year and have an additional $63 million in contracts coming off the books going into next year. That doesn’t even include quarterback Andy Dalton, whose $16 million salary could go away should the Bengals move on from him.
Atkins’ contract could exceed Cox’s in value, making him the highest paid defensive tackle in the league. Even a 6-year, $108 million contract only eats up $18 million in cap space a year, though. That sum is worth the top-tier production Atkins gives on the field.
There is obviously a great deal up in the air this offseason as the Bengals determine who gets an extension and who doesn’t. However, the decision on Geno Atkins shouldn’t be difficult at all. This guy needs to get paid, and he needs to stay a Bengal, no matter what it takes.