For the third straight offseason, the Vikings have a major need at three-technique defensive tackle. A player who can generate consistent pressure from the interior while not being a liability against the run is huge for a defense, and Mike Zimmer's team hasn't had one since Sheldon Richardson's one-season stint in 2018.
The Vikings survived without a reliable three-tech in 2019 because they had a surplus of talented edge rushers and could rotate players like Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly inside on passing downs. But last season, with Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and Weatherly gone and Danielle Hunter injured, the defensive line as a whole was a disaster. Getting Hunter and Michael Pierce back this year is big, but there's still a gaping hole at that three-tech spot. None of Armon Watts, Jalyn Holmes, or James Lynch are the answer, and only Watts can even be relied upon to make any sort of impact in the DT rotation.
That means the Vikings should be looking hard at adding a 3T this offseason. They could do that by drafting Alabama's Christian Barmore in the first round, but he's the only projected Day 1 starter at DT in this year's draft class. The better way to address that spot might be through free agency, especially because doing so would allow the Vikings to take an EDGE, OL, or DB in the first round. Leonard Williams might be too pricey, but Minnesota could make a splash with a player like Shelby Harris or Ndamukong Suh.
But today, we're here to talk about someone else: Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins. He's not a free agent yet, as he's signed to a contract that runs for two more seasons. But there's growing momentum to the idea that Atkins will be a cap casualty as Cincinnati embraces a youth movement. They could save $9.5 million against the cap by releasing him, and that appears to be a significant possibility as the new league year approaches. If Atkins hits the market, the Vikings should be very interested. If healthy (more on that in a second) and available at the right price, he would be a perfect fit for what Minnesota needs on defense. And with his connections to Mike Zimmer and Paul Guenther, it's not hard to imagine Atkins being interested in joining the Vikings.
Back in 2010, the Bengals selected Atkins in the fourth round out of Georgia. Zimmer was entering his third season as their defensive coordinator, while Guenther was an assistant on the staff. As the decade progressed, Atkins developed into one of the most fearsome defensive tackles in the NFL. He blew up with 12.5 sacks, 78 pressures, and a 93.9 PFF grade in 2012 and was consistently productive from year to year. In each of the eight seasons where Atkins was healthy and starting, he made the Pro Bowl. He was a first-team All Pro in 2012 and 2015 and racked up 75.5 sacks in his first ten seasons. Meanwhile, when Zimmer left for Minnesota in 2014, Guenther replaced him at DC and was in that role for the next four years.
2020 was a rough year for Atkins. He tore a labrum in his right shoulder towards the end of training camp and was out until Week 5. But instead of opting for surgery, he tried to come back and play through it. Atkins was limited to a rotational role in the eight games he wound up playing, never seeing more than 19 snaps in a single game. In mid-December, he finally decided to shut it down and have surgery.
With Atkins turning 33 soon and coming off of shoulder surgery, there's reason to be worried about his ability to get back to an elite level of play. But that could also lower his price tag and make him more affordable for the Vikings. If his shoulder is fine, he could easily have several more good years left in front of him. Atkins saw his pressures decline every year from 2015 to 2019, but his 53 pressures in 2019 were still six more than Richardson had in Minnesota the year prior (and 41 more than Watts had in 2020 as the Vikings' best DT). Prior to last season, Atkins had made six straight Pro Bowls. He can still play. If he does end up being cut by Cincinnati, a reunion with Zimmer and Guenther –– who the Vikings recently hired as a senior defensive assistant –– could be a great way for him to put together a bounce-back season.
A defensive line with Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, and Atkins would be a game-changer for the Vikings. Whether the second defensive end is Odenigbo, an early draft pick, or a cheap free agent wouldn't matter too much. Hunter, Pierce, and Atkins would make life very difficult for opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks.
However, you can also make the argument that signing Atkins to an expensive contract would be an unnecessary risk for the Vikings. Making a splash with Atkins could potentially limit Minnesota's ability to add to their offensive line, secondary, and/or receiving corps in free agency. It all depends on his price tag, how you feel about the Vikings' different needs, and how much upside Atkins still has at 33 years old.
At the very least, it's something to keep in mind as we head towards March.
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