There’s no questioning whether Geno Atkins is the best defender on the Bengals or whether he’s a top five interior defensive lineman in the NFL. But with J.J. Watt, Aaron Donald and others dominating, where does Atkins stack up in the pecking order? Did Atkins reach his ceiling in 2015 or can he be even better?
When grading and ranking interior defensive linemen (3-4 defensive ends, 4-3 defensive tackles and nose tackles from both base defenses), Atkins usually ranks somewhere between third and fifth place, usually behind Watt and Donald and occasionally behind other additional players. Fletcher Cox, Kawann Short and Muhammad Wilkerson have made strides toward becoming premiere players, and guys like Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh are still around despite somewhat disappointing seasons in 2015. Interior defensive linemen have been incredible over the past year or two, and the interior defensive line is perhaps the most loaded position group in the NFL.
After a stellar 2015 season, Geno Atkins has now re-established himself as an elite defensive tackle. He’s an incredible pass-rusher and an excellent run defender, which makes for one heck of a player. His bull rush just may be the best of any defender in the NFL. According to Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit, "there’s not a guard in the league that can handle" Atkins’ bull rush. On the latest episode of the MMQB Podcast, Benoit, Gary Gramling and the show’s producer compiled a list of the 15 best interior defenders in football; Atkins finished third on the list behind Watt and Donald.
But should Atkins be ranked lower than Donald? There’s no questioning that Watt is the best interior lineman in the NFL right now, but Atkins is closer behind than people seem to give him credit for. In an interview with Cincy Jungle, Marcus Hardison told us that Atkins and Donald are his two favorite players to watch on film. But which of the two is better?
Aaron Donald is an incredible player, but forgive me for not thinking he's definitively better than Geno Atkins. pic.twitter.com/h3Yj2b8FNb— Connor Howe (@HoweNFL) June 24, 2016
Numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole story, as evidenced above. Each of the two players has strengths and weaknesses. On the MMQB podcast, Benoit seemed a bit frustrated with Donald’s lack of gap responsibility. Benoit mentioned that when teams run away from Donald, he gets eager, sheds his block and tries to make a play rather than holding his position. Though it might not seem like much, Donald's lack of gap discipline on these types of plays leaves his linebackers out to dry, especially if opposing ball carriers cut back toward the gap Donald abandons. Benoit and Gramling didn’t touch on Atkins as much as they discussed others on the podcast, and they didn’t discuss a single weakness of Atkins'. That’s not to say Atkins is perfect; his injury history is somewhat concerning, and he doesn’t stay on the field as long as many premier defensive tackles—which could potentially be attributed to his sickle cell trait, or simply the Bengals' scheme.
With all of that said, I don’t think you can definitively say which player is better when considering Donald or Atkins. Both players are fantastic; Donald hits opposing quarterbacks at a higher rate, while Atkins is in opposing backfields at a higher rate. Both players have different strengths and both have different weaknesses, and because of it, I think they’re both about equal players.
And as we’ve seen, Atkins can be even better than he was in 2015. In 2012, the defensive tackle tallied 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He had the best season a defensive tackle had ever graded in Pro Football Focus history, until Donald’s 2015 season topped it. That’s not to say Pro Football Focus is gospel, as the site’s grading system has some significant flaws. But in comparing Atkins’ 2015 to 2012 seasons, it’s worth noting that Atkins graded better as a pass rusher and run stopper in 2012. At age 28, Atkins is still in his prime and plenty capable of improving to—or beyond—his 2012 form. If he’s able to improve in 2016 and beyond, he will have a serious case to make as a potential Hall of Fame candidate. Of course, that case would be helped by the Bengals winning a Super Bowl.