Jamison Hensley at ESPN has been counting down the top-25 players in the AFC North Division for the past couple of weeks. The list will likely end around Training Camp, as he's been roughly been doing one player writeup per day. Hensley has a good pulse on the players in the AFC North as he is the "four-letter network's" division blogger.
In case you've missed it, linebacker Thomas Howard kicked off Hensley's list at No.25, tight end Jermaine Gresham came in at No.23, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth landed at No.18, and wide receiver A.J. Green came in at No.10. Now, it's Geno Atkins' turn and he almost cracked the top-five of Hensley's list.
Atkins comes in at No.7 overall on the countdown. Of his 2011 performance and 2012 outlook, Hensley writes:
Why Atkins is ranked 7th: Remember when there was some concern last year when Cincinnati released Tank Johnson and moved Atkins into the starting lineup? Well, not anymore. Atkins responded with eight sacks, which led all NFL interior linemen, and a Pro Bowl season. He was the best defensive tackle in the division, even outplaying banged-up Haloti Ngata.
Atkins is up there with the Lions' Ndamukong Suh as the league's best interior defensive linemen under the age of 26. Atkins is only 24 and continues to get better. But unlike Suh and Ngata, many fans outside the AFC North aren't familiar with Atkins' name. Perhaps after another stellar season, Atkins will get more national attention.
While it may surprise some that Hensley gives this much credit to Atkins, his assessment of Atkins outplaying Ngata last year is spot on. Ngata gets a boatload of media love because of his team's success (particularly on defense), as well as a handful of Pro Bowl berths to stand on. But, Atkins is coming off of a Pro Bowl berth of his own after just his second NFL season--his first as a regular starter. While he may be a bit overshadowed by players like Ngata and Suh, he's still being mentioned in the same sentence. If Atkins puts up another stellar season in 2012 like we expect him to, he won't be overlooked any longer.
This ranking, along with Gresham's at No.23, really point to that 2010 draft class as a special one. Gresham was the team's first round pick that year, while Atkins was their fourth-rounder. Sandwiched between those two are guys like defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who appears to be knocking on the door to stardom himself, as well as wide receiver Jordan Shipley. Not a bad haul that year.
We don't foresee any other Bengals coming in on Hensley's list unless he has some huge secret crush on Andy Dalton. Still five Bengals on a top-25 list seems pretty fair.