Where will free agent Geno Atkins sign?
Geno Atkins has had a fantastic career, and he has been a force on the Bengals’ defensive line for most of his eleven NFL seasons. The 32-year old has made eight Pro Bowls during his NFL tenure while earning a first-team All-Pro nod twice. However, he was severely limited by injuries and lack of playing time this year, only playing in eight games all season due to a shoulder issue. Even when Atkins played, he was rarely used, never appearing on the field for more than 19 snaps in a game. Reports of his playing time frustrations surfaced, and he was linked to trade rumors at the deadline, but the Bengals held onto him, seemingly because they didn’t get an offer that they wanted. However, Atkins is under contract for two more years, and his storied career may attract teams who hope he can return to form after healing up. Here are five teams who could be interested.
- Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville was one of the worst teams at creating pressure this season, with just 18 sacks on the year. They also struggled against the run, allowing the third-most rushing yards per game. That was partially due to edge rusher Josh Allen’s injury problems; Allen only played in eight regular season games. 2020 first-round pick K’Lavon Chaisson also didn’t have the impact Jacksonville hoped for, finishing with just one sack in 16 weeks. Fortunately, Jacksonville has nearly $70 million in cap space, the most in the NFL. This means they can afford Atkins’ contract, which costs $30.75 million over the next two years. Atkins could serve as a veteran leader who could stabilize the Jags’ defense, giving Allen more room to operate on the outside. That could also help players such as defensive end Dawuane Smoot (5.5 sacks in 2020) and Chaisson, as more defensive attention would be focused away from them. Jacksonville’s struggles against the pass (sixth most passing yards allowed) stemmed partially from their inability to create consistent pressure, and having Atkins as an anchor up front could create more pressure, forcing more mistakes from the opposing QB. Atkins obviously isn’t the same player he once was, but he gives experience to a line that desperately needs it, and Jacksonville has the cap flexibility to make a trade happen.
- Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders were another team that struggled in the pass rush. Paul Guenther’s unit mustered just 21 sacks in 2020, and Guenther’s inability to capitalize on Vegas’ young talent cost him his job as defensive coordinator. The Raiders hired Gus Bradley as their new DC, and he will immediately get to work on improving his defense. One step the Raiders could take is trading for Atkins. Their cap situation isn’t great (approximately $19 million over the cap), but all of their studs are under contract for 2021, so they could decide to pursue Atkins and address their other needs through the draft. Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell are locked in at defensive end, and while Crosby took a step back this season in terms of sacks, he didn’t have much help around him, and he still did manage seven sacks in 16 games. Atkins could help Crosby and Ferrell be more effective in the blitz, and he would add much-needed support to a weak interior line. Both of Vegas’ starting DT’s are free agents this year, and the Raiders may have to choose to let either Maliek Collins or Johnathan Hankins walk. If they only bring back one, Atkins would slot in as a starter, and he would help out a run defense that finished 24th in rushing yards allowed per game. Atkins alone won’t make the defensive line great, but it could become at least a decent unit, which is still an upgrade from last year. Vegas could use this year as a rebuilding year, and then get further upgrades for Atkins’ final season under contract, when he will likely need more support.
- Cleveland Browns
Unlike Vegas and Jacksonville, Cleveland actually already has a decent pass rush, as their 38 sacks were good for 15th in the league in 2020. However, to make their pass rush truly elite, the Browns likely need an additional piece. Atkins is someone the Browns can afford, as Cleveland is 10th in the NFL with nearly $20 million in cap space. Like the Raiders and Jaguars, the Browns run a 4-3 defense, so Atkins would likely complete a three-man rotation with Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi at DT. Atkins wouldn’t be a full-time player, but he would almost certainly see more snaps than he did with the Bengals, as his snap share mostly hovered around 25% in Cincinnati. The Browns already have good starters on their line, but having a rotation is important, and Atkins could help keep the other linemen fresh, improving their performance in pressuring the QB. Atkins can get sacks, but he can also be a run-stuffer; such versatility could help the Browns on multiple fronts. Cleveland allowed the ninth-fewest rushing yards per game in 2020, so the addition of Atkins could make the Browns’ run defense a force feared throughout the league. The 12th-year-veteran doesn’t require a ton of defensive attention these days, but the Browns have Myles Garrett to take the pressure off of the rest of the line. Garrett’s impact and the Browns’ interior line depth makes it easy to see a situation where Atkins thrives.
- Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys’ pass rush was actually solid this year, thanks to their edge rushers, so they mainly need help improving their atrocious run defense. The Cowboys allowed the second-most rushing yards per game in 2020, so Atkins would certainly get playing time in Dallas. The Cowboys will be helped by Gerald McCoy’s return from his 2020 season-ending injury, and Atkins can line up across from him on the interior line, as the Cowboys also run a 4-3. Atkins would be a full-time player in Dallas, as the Cowboys really don’t have anyone other than McCoy who can challenge him (in terms of skill) on the interior. Because of this, Atkins alone is not a guaranteed fix, but he at least gives some help to a unit that desperately needs some. The Cowboys also have a decent cap situation, with nearly $18 million in space, and their major issues on the defensive line could force them to make a move. Atkins seems like a good fit, and with two years left on his contract, the Cowboys will have a chance to build around him in the following offseason.
- Denver Broncos
Like the Cowboys, Denver had a decent pass rush this year, but their rushing defense needs some work. Denver’s 130 rushing yards allowed per game wasn’t close to Dallas’ 158.8, but it was still good for eighth-worst in the NFL. The Broncos have about $18.5 million in cap space, so they would be capable of making a trade for Atkins, who would serve as a run-stuffer alongside edge rushers such as Bradley Chubb and Malik Reed. Unlike the other teams on this list, Denver runs a 3-4, so Atkins could end up sharing time with 2020 starter DeShawn Williams at nose tackle. However, Williams wasn’t overly effective this year, so Atkins could have an opportunity to take a starting role. Atkins’ ability to get sacks would only improve Denver’s solid pass rush. But his main impact would be in the running game, and his presence could be very helpful for the Broncos. There’s certainly a chance that Atkins returns to Cincinnati next year, but that feels unlikely for multiple reasons. For one, any of the destinations mentioned above would probably give Atkins more playing time than the Bengals, and his desire to play more is well-known at this point. Also, even though the Bengals need help on the defensive line, they don’t seem to want to play Atkins more, so there’s not much reason for them to keep a guy who might not want to be there. There’s a chance that Cincinnati doesn’t get a good enough offer, but I’d expect negotiations to heat up as the offseason continues, and my prediction is that we’ll see Geno Atkins playing in a different uniform for the 2021 season.