Striking a long-term deal with Geno Atkins is about more than keeping the game's best defensive tackle. It's a sign to fans and the rest of the league that the Cincinnati Bengals are committed to keeping their young stars.
This is a franchise -- and owner -- which has received the frugal label for not using all of its salary-cap space, which was at $19.4 million before the Atkins extension. The explanation has been that the team is saving that room to keep its young talent.
Whatever criticism the Bengals and Mike Brown faced in the past, the organization followed through on its word today, as Atkins agreed to a five-year, $55 million contract extension with Atkins, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Only one other defensive tackle, the Baltimore Ravens' Haloti Ngata (five years, $61 million), received a more lucrative extension.
Atkins, 25, is the centerpiece of perhaps the best defense in the AFC -- and perhaps the best in the NFL. Once overshadowed by the likes of Ngata and Ndamukong Suh, Atkins has gained more notoriety this year and was the seventh-ranked defensive player in ESPN's latest player rankings.
Atkins' 12.5 sacks last season were tied for 15th all time by a defensive tackle in a single season. According to Pro Football Focus, his 62 total hits and hurries last season were 13 more than the next-best defensive tackle, which was Suh.
Few defensive players, much less tackles, are as consistent as Atkins. The two-time Pro Bowl lineman recorded at least a half-sack in 10 games last season. In three of the six games he was shut out, he had at least three quarterback hurries.
"The guy is maybe one of the most powerful interior linemen that you’ll ever see," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said last season.
This deal goes a long way in giving Atkins the respect and money that he deserves. A fourth-round pick in 2010, Atkins was scheduled to earn $1.4 million in the last year of his rookie deal. Now, he will receive $22 million over the next six months.
The Bengals didn't have to reward Atkins. They could've used the franchise tag on him next season. But it was in Cincinnati's best interest to get a deal done sooner rather than later. The Bengals didn't want to get in a situation where they could lose another emerging talent like defensive lineman Justin Smith, cornerback Johnathan Joseph or offensive lineman Eric Steinbach.
This is the second young defensive lineman that the Bengals have signed to a long-term deal this summer. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap agreed to a six-year, $40 million contract in July which included $11.76 million guaranteed. But the deal with Atkins is more significant based on the caliber of player and money involved.
The Bengals' work is far from over. By completing Atkins' deal now, Cincinnati can focus on wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton. Both are entering the final year of their contracts in 2014.
But that's talk for next year. Right now, the Bengals, Atkins and Cincinnati's football fans can celebrate. The Bengals have the look of a Super Bowl contender this year. And based on this deal, they're looking like a team built to contend for the long run.