From 1991 through 2008 the Cincinnati Bengals made the playoffs one time. Their recent success -- back-to-back postseason appearances and three trips to the playoffs in four years -- has come from a plan built on patience.
And at the heart of that restoration project has been the Bengals' defensive line. The franchise has built around its front four, a commitment reiterated again Monday as Cincinnati handed Pro Bowler Geno Atkins a five-year, $55 million extension.
Atkins, arguably the top defensive tackle in football, was to earn just $1.2 million this season on the final year of his rookie contract, with the specter of free agency looming after 2013. Rather than risk negotiating after the season or using the franchise tag, Cincinnati opted to pay up now, with Atkins securing $31 million in guaranteed money.
That move comes on the heels of the Bengals' July decision to give DE Carlos Dunlap a contract extension worth $40 million. They then used the franchise tag on fellow end Michael Johnson, to the tune of $11.175 million. Add it all up and, per OvertheCap.com, the Bengals have committed more money to the defensive side of the football for 2013 (just shy of $64 million) than all but one other team (Kansas City).
Atkins' well-deserved pay raise moves him near the top of the salary scale for interior defensive lineman, alongside Haloti Ngata (five years, $61 million) and Ndamukong Suh (five years, $60 million). Suh could be up for free agency after the 2014 season -- his '15 contract year is voidable, meaning he could walk. Suh and teammate Nick Fairley, whose deal also is set to end after 2014, could use Atkins' contract as a barometer for their own demands.
The Bengals have mostly avoided contract headaches with their financial footwork this summer. The big decision forthcoming for them will be in relation to Johnson, who probably will become a free agent himself next offseason. Cincinnati prioritized contracts for Dunlap and Atkins over the 26-year-old end.
It's hard to argue with either call. Dunlap, 24, appears to just now be tapping into his full range of talent. Atkins, meanwhile, is coming off a 12.5-sack 2012 season and, had it not been for J.J. Watt's dominant season, may have had an argument for Defensive Player of the Year. Cincinnati has molded the rest of its defense to work around what Atkins provides up front. Getting him locked up for the next several seasons ensures that the Bengals can continue on with that strategy, one that has paid dividends in the win column.