Praise for Geno Atkins this spring and summer have included buzz words like "scary", supplemented by powerful descriptions like "he's our best player" from his defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther. Many who have watched Atkins during training camp are no longer surprised about his offseason development, or his resumption towards greatness, preached by coaches, teammates and/or a conservative sport media. We've seen it, been awed by the resumption of his familiar quickness and the unsuspecting strength that justifiably earned accolades as a three-time pro bowler and a one-time all-pro player.
Many fans finally got their first look during Cincinnati's preseason opener on Friday. "Hey, he looks great". "I know!" Despite only playing six snaps against the Giants, the totality of two possessions that each resulted in three-and-outs, Atkins made the highlight reel with 10:15 remaining in the first quarter. Guard Jerry John had no shot counteracting Atkins' quickness of the ball, bullying his way through the A-gap and penetrating the trenches before running back Andre Williams could reach the line of scrimmage.
Of the six snaps that Atkins played Friday night, four were pass against New York's quick passing game where the sixth-year defensive tackle couldn't, by the known laws of universal physics, generate any pressure. Regardless, Pro Football Focus graded Atkins with an overall score of +1.2, which ranked fifth among the team's defensive players and first on the defensive line.
"His quickness off of the football — and not only that, but also it's the mental part of it. The fact he understands the offense, he understands the formations, and things that occur that they're trying to do to block him and run plays. He's able to take advantage of his quickness and do some good things," said head coach Marvin Lewis following Cincinnati's Friday night win.
"He's our best player," Guenther said in the aforementioned praise. "He's come back in great shape. He's responded. When he came back in the spring, the quickness was back. You could see he was Geno again."
Indeed, his return to form, notably his production from ‘12 and ‘13 (before his injury), is not unlike the combined enthusiasm people are expressing when factoring how Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert impacts the offense.
Though he played the entire year last season, it's documented (and opinionated) that Atkins' season was in relative declined because he spent the entire offseason rehabilitating from a torn ACL during Halloween night in 2013. If Atkins were any other player, the pro bowl season he had last year might seem justified. However, Atkins at the top of his game is arguably the best interior pass rusher in the NFL; and he clearly wasn't last season.
The good news is that these impressions are returning to the general lexicon, as Atkins spent the offseason training and improving, generating significant buzz for a defense desperately needing his pre-injury production.
In addition to his "return", Atkins is becoming the unintended mentor to a pair of rookies; Marcus Hardison and DeShawn Williams, each of whom generated a sack during Cincinnati's win Friday night.
"They call me ‘Baby Geno' in the locker room, but I haven't done anything yet to reach that status," said Williams via Bengals.com. "I try to learn from him each and every day. Just to have an All-Pro in your room - you get star struck and I've got nothing but praise for him. He's a wonderful teammate. I've never met a guy like Geno. He's just a freak of nature man. One day I hope I can reach his status but it's going to take some work."
Williams is generating enough buzz to make an argument for the 53-man roster; especially for a defensive line with significant competition. Hardison probably creates a stronger argument, due to the belief that drafted players are automatically given favor in comparison to college free agents. Regardless, it would seem practical to prognosticate both players being on Cincinnati's roster, in one of form (53-man roster) or another (practice squad).
"They're learning from one of the best (in Geno Atkins), so that's really good for them to go out there in the fourth quarter (and play well)," said defensive tackle Domata Peko.