Sitting north of $8 million over the salary cap, the Minnesota Vikings will have to make tough decisions this offseason. While they can create space by reworking deals with veteran players, they still won’t be making big moves in free agency like they have in the past.
Many other teams across the league are looking to create cap space by cutting veterans with big contracts, and Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins could be one such casualty. Atkins, an eight-time Pro Bowler, has probably played his last snaps in Cincy as the salary cap lowers for the first time in over a decade.
Atkins, 32, may appear incredibly underwhelming if you only look at his box score from last season. He didn’t record a sack and had just one tackle in eight games, but his poor performance was partially due to his choice to postpone surgery on a shoulder injury he incurred in training camp. He played in a limited capacity the whole season, never lining up for more than 19 snaps per game to keep as much stress off his torn Labrum as possible.
Yes, Atkins isn’t the same disruptive force he was when he logged 12.5 sacks as an interior pass rusher, he still has plenty to offer.
Minnesota’s defensive line finished 28th in sacks and only produced a 21.6% pressure rate on pass-rush snaps. Sure, getting Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce back will help bolster this depleted unit, but there are still vacancies that need to be addressed.
Three-technique has been a hole that the Vikings have struggled to fill since nerve damage from Shariff Floyd’s surgery forced him into early retirement. While they have tried everyone from Shemar Stephan to Jaleel Johnson — even Ifeadi Odenigbo for a short period of time — nobody has locked down that spot.
Atkins and the Vikings feel like a perfect match. He probably won’t command a large salary because of his age and injury history, but he can still start at 3-tech come Week 1. He also has previous experience with both head coach Mike Zimmer and new senior defensive assistant Paul Guenther, who helped turn the 2010 fourth-rounder into a perennial Pro-Bowler.
While Atkins won’t give you the same production he did early on in his career, he could effectively bridge the gap until the Vikings draft a 3-tech to replace him. His addition would provide a lot of help as a pass-rusher, but his presence alone shouldn’t prevent the Vikings from drafting a defensive lineman to eventually replace him.
The biggest mistake the Vikings made with Sheldon Richardson was failing to acknowledge that he might not return after his one-year deal expired. They didn’t have a plan to replace him. Instead of adding a meaningful contributor at the position through the draft, they were forced to go to Stephen and Johnson.
Atkins could serve as a mentor to James Lynch and a rookie 3-tech if they draft one, helping them understand the nuances of the position he has learned in his 11-year career. His presence from the inside would be perfect for Hunter and whomever lines up across from him; the pressure Atkins could create from the outside will force quarterbacks to move out of the pocket and into the edge rushers.
While Atkins’ recent injury and age are definitely a concern, the Vikings should still inquire about adding him to the roster if he becomes a free agent.[h/t Heavy]