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Possible Breakout Player of 2011: Bengals Defensive Tackle Geno Atkins

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This started a long time ago. Back in the olden days where there was something called 'training camp' and coaches were allowed to talk to players during the offseason, we began to hear a lot of hype about a couple of players on the defensive side of the ball. One of those guys was Carlos Dunlap -- no surprise there. Dunlap was, after all, a second round pick and a highly praised athlete coming out of one of the best football programs in the nation at Florida.

And then there was the man that they called "Taz."

Drafted in the fourth round with the 120th overall selection, Geno Atkins came into the league with questions about his overall effort and his apparent lack of size. During his college years at Georgia, his production was somewhat erratic. In his sophomore season he racked up 7.5 sacks in just 7 starts, but he slumped the next year, accumulating zero sacks. During his final season with the Bulldogs he ended up with 3.5 sacks and 28 QB pressures while starting only three games.

But our first clue that the Bengals coaching staff had found a diamond in the rough should have been that he was nicknamed after a Loony Toons character that can spin through solid tree trunks. What did we realistically expect from Atkins when the Bengals drafted him? Cincy Jungle's very own Josh Kirkendall nailed it in his draft review back in 2010 saying,

Cincinnati drafting Georgia's Geno Atkins allows the Bengals a greater rotation based on situations with the rookie being more of an inside pass rusher than the rush stopping artery clogger...Will he start? Aside from injury being the cause, unlikely.

After a year of watching him play however, we think it might be time to give him a shot.

Playing almost exclusively on passing situations last year, Atkins proved to be the teams most ferocious interior pass rusher. He ate up offensive guards like Andre Smith eats chicken wings on "All-you-can-eat Fridays" at Old Country Buffet. His numbers don't jump off the page, but 3 credited sacks, 16 tackles and 1 pass deflection don't exactly tell the whole statistical story of just how dominating of a pass rusher Atkins proved to be.

To do that, let's turn to Pro Football Focus who labeled Atkins as the Bengal's "Secret Superstar" of the 2010 season.

It was his consistency as part of the nickel defense that made him a fearsome player. By the end of the year, he had totaled 31 quarterback disruptions, only 12 defensive tackles had more. Most noteworthy is that Atkins accumulated his on fewer snaps than all of the guys above him. Furthermore, Atkins converted 10.69% of his pass rushing attempts into disruptions, good enough for 4th best among all NFL defensive tackles. More than Kevin Williams (6.63%).  More than Haloti Ngata (5.5%).  And more than our top rated defensive tackle, Kyle Williams (9.77%).

Point being, Geno Atkins knows how to rush the passer.

It is always sweet music to our ears when we hear that one of our beloved Bengals gets compared to a Ravens star - and comes out on top. Needless to say, Atkins is poised for a breakout year in 2011 - especially if the coaching staff sees fit to get him on the field more.

Whether he "starts" or not is irrelevant - Atkins has earned the opportunity to see more snaps next season. While there remains questions about his ability to stop the run, it wouldn't be hard to make the case that he should play more next season. According to Pro Football Focus Atkins played in 355 of the teams defensive snaps last year -- a number that amounts to 35.1% of the team's total snaps in 2010. Of those snaps, 290 were on passing plays (82% for those of you who are counting). If you extract his numbers over 750 snaps, you might expect him to get somewhere between 6-8 sacks a year - numbers that would put him in pretty good company among NFL DTs.

Before you say that you don't think that Atkins is an every down DT, consider the fact that NFL has truly become a passing league.  It's no longer safe to assume that 2nd down is a rushing down, or that in short yardage situations a team is going to run the ball. Pass rushers are needed almost every down, and Atkins has already proven himself to be one of the most productive and efficient pass rushers on the team (and in the NFL).

And if Atkins does see more playing time next year? I think he just might establish himself as one of the best pass rushing defensive tackles in the NFL.