As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he’s looking at three players who could hit free agency in 2014.
Henry Melton, Randy Starks and Gerald McCoy combined for 15.5 sacks last season. They are set to make a total of $24,921,250 in base salaries this coming season, with Melton and Starks currently signed on franchise-tag tenders of $8.45 million.
Geno Atkins had 12.5 sacks on his own last year, the most of any defensive tackle in football. He will earn $1.423 million.
This is the conundrum facing the Cincinnati Bengals, a franchise that often chooses frugality over free-wheeling spending, as the 2013 season approaches. Atkins, their 25-year-old defensive star, is entering the final year of his rookie deal. He has earned a salary that far surpasses what he'll make this year, yet how do you set the market for him?
Is it with the franchise-tagged salaries of players like Melton or Starks? Or is it with someone like Haloti Ngata, who signed a five-year, $61 million deal in 2011 (but has just a $4 million base salary this season) or Ndamukong Suh, who's on a five-year, $60 million rookie deal (despite a base salary of $630,000 this season, with $11.5 million coming in a signing bonus)?
By about any tangible measurement, Atkins deserves to be in the elite-money neighborhood. The statistics certainly bare that out -- 12.5 sacks and 49 QB hurries (a dozen more than any other DT) in 2012 -- as do his back-to-back Pro Bowl berths; a first-team All-Pro nod last season; and the fact that he lapped the competition in Pro Football Focus's ratings, finishing the year with a plus-80.0 mark, astronomically in front of the No. 2 player at his position, McCoy, at 31.7.
This whole process is difficult because a) The Bengals likely can save money by keeping Atkins on his rookie deal through 2013, then tagging him prior to 2014, and b) There's not really another player in the league quite like Atkins.
Defensive tackles simply are not supposed to get to the quarterback with the type of regularity that Atkins does. When they do, opposing teams usually go out of their way to scheme them out of the action, as many offenses did to Suh following his 10.0-sack rookie season.
Thus far, very few teams have had any success trying to thwart Atkins. Only four times during Cincinnati's 16 regular-season games in 2012 did Atkins fail to record at least a half-sack -- twice against Cleveland, once each against Denver and the Giants.
Starks helps set the table for Cameron Wake, while Melton holds down the fort inside to allow Julius Peppers and (current free agent) Israel Idonije or Corey Wootton freedom to roam outside. Ngata is a defensive end in the Ravens' 3-4, a spot that asks him to stop the run and occupy blockers on pass plays.
Atkins, on the other hand, is his team's premier pass rusher. He's been pushed in that role, in the most positive way possible for Cincinnati's defense, by end Michael Johnson lately -- Johnson had 11.5 sacks of his own last season. But it is Atkins who more consistently pressures the quarterback.
So, again, how exactly does Cincinnati approach a new contract?
The problem with waiting to figure that out is that an easy answer may not be around the corner. They also cannot afford to let Atkins get away, be it after 2013 or '14, so at some point, they'll have to open the checkbook. Atkins' price tag could rise even further if they wait through this season, and the former Georgia Bulldog delivers yet another standout campaign.
This season's defensive tackle franchise-tag salary ($8.45 million) should stand as a baseline for Atkins' possible contract. His recent performance, especially in comparison to others at his position around the league, justifies a number three or four million above that.
Atkins' argument will be buoyed by the fact that Cincinnati has built its current defense around him. In the two years since Atkins took over as a full-time starter up front, the Bengals have finished eighth and ninth in points allowed. Contrast that with 2010, when Atkins started just one game, and the Bengals languished with the 24th-ranked defense and a 4-12 record.
With James Harrison added to the linebacking corps behind him, Atkins will have even more help keeping Cincinnati a top-10 defense in 2013. Which means that he has a chance to at least duplicate, if not surpass, his 2012 stats. Should he do that, his asking price will only increase -- as might his disappointment in being hit with the franchise tag after delivering three straight brilliant seasons on the cheap. There are few players in football who can change the game as Atkins can, and there may not be any at his position capable of such dominance. The thought that he might still be improving, and that he may play with a chip on his shoulder this season, is difficult to even fathom.