The Bengals are rumored to be prepared to negotiate a new contract with star DT Geno Atkins, looking to lock him up long term as a centerpiece of the defense. Atkins is one of the most unique players in the NFL in that he players in the interior of the defense but he is a bonafide pass rusher. It makes putting a value on Atkins quite difficult because he is, by all accounts, so unique as a player that it becomes difficult to find comparable players. So let’s take a look at Atkins in some key categories.
I have my own statistic that usually I refer to as pass rush performance. PRP essentially looks at a passing play as occurring either with no pressure or under pressure and puts a quantitative value on the pressure. For this metric we simply define success as a completion and failure as anything else once a QB drops back to pass. From the fine database over at Pro Football Focus we can calculate that a QB facing no pressure will complete a pass 64.8% of the time he drops back to pass the ball, a number that drops to 46.2% if he throws in the face of pressure. Having those numbers we can adjust a players pass rush plays into expected success and failures. The increased failures illustrates the effect the player has on the game.
Atkins rushed the QB 494 times in 2012, registering 16 sacks and 62 pressures. On 494 non-pressure snaps we would expect the QB to complete 320.4 passes and fail 173.6 times. Atkins produced 416 non-pressure snaps and 62 pressure snaps. Those situations result in 146.2 and 33.4 failures, respectively. He also had 16 failures from sacks bringing his total failed plays to 195.6. That equates to a pass rush performance of 12.6%.
Among defensive tackles that number is almost unheard of. The only other Defensive Tackle with a double digit rating was Steve McClendon of the Steelers at 11.6%, but he only rushed on 71 plays so its an extremely small sample. The average for a DT was 4.3% so in terms of pass rush we can say that he is 2.9 times more valuable than the average player at the position.
By that metric he is the most impressive positional pass rusher in all of the NFL. Nobody else that plays significant snaps is that much better than the average player at his position. Aldon Smith and Clay Matthews are about 1.5 times as productive as the average 34OLB. Cameron Wake is 1.7 times as productive as the average 43DE. Even JJ Watt who puts up unheard of numbers for a 34DE is only 2.4 times as productive as the average player at the position.
Now whether or not Atkins can keep up this pace is a different story. He was at 8% the year before, which is still top of the position considering how he not just a situational rusher, but that’s a little more in line with the rest of the NFL than what he did in 2012. But for last season he was the most dominant player compared to his peers on defense and it was not even close.
In terms of overall productivity his 12.6% would rank behind only Cameron Wake (12.8%) and would tie with Aldon Smith. So there is a clear argument that can be made on his behalf that he should be slotted in with the exterior pass rushers when it comes to pay slotting.
In terms of run defense I want to compare Atkins’ numbers to the league average at his position in a number of categories, including solo tackles, total tackles, and stop percentage. The ranks given are among players with at least 100 run snaps at DT.
% Solo Tackles
Clearly he again ranks well above the average, right around top 5 at the position in the key categories. Realistically the only player better that was close to 200 snaps was Henry Melton (199 snaps) of the Bears. The other player to rank higher across the board was the Titans Mike Martin (165 snaps), so you could argue that he is the best of the close to full time run defenders.
This is where it becomes very difficult to fit Atkins in. The average salary for a starting quality DT is only $3.91 million. The top 32 players average around $5.3 million a year. The franchise tag at the position this past year was $8.45 million. Compare that to a DE where the averages are closer to $4.7, $6.5 and $11.12 million and you have a real difficult time figuring out where to put him. The matter probably becomes even more complex when you factor in that N’damukong Suh and Gerald McCoy make $12.7 and $11 million a year respectively due to draft status under the old CBA and in general should be treated as complete outliers at the position.
I am sure that the argument on his side may be similar to that of the hybrid TE/WR where you argue that he plays the DT position but he’s really a pass rusher and should be paid that way. The one difficulty with that argument is that Atkins played about 800 snaps last season which is around 150-200 shy of the top edge rushers in the league.
The one interesting name that should be brought up in the negotiation is that of Haloti Ngata of the Ravens. Ngata currently plays 34DE and is one of the more versatile players in the NFL, but he originally signed his contract with the Ravens as a Defensive Tackle. Now this was before the market collapsed, but Ngata earned $12.131 million a season to essentially be a versatile lineman and it is a contract that is still valid. Like Atkins, Ngata never was a 1000 snap player. While the two play very different games and Ngata is going to do more things that do not show up in a stat sheet, it’s a very valid point of reference especially for a team with as much cap room as the Bengals.
Now because of the changing market I don’t think the Bengals, or any other team, would go as high as the Ravens did with Ngata. I understand that Atkins is very unique, but pass rushers are getting limited funds in todays NFL marketplace compared to 2011. From a pure valuation standpoint if we take Atkins as 2.9 times as productive as the average DT in pass rush and 1.5 times as productive in run stoppage and factor the two categories in a 58/42 split mimicking the average NFL play selection you come up with a salary of $9.1 million a season.
Now I would consider that number the minimum that he is worth. We know he is unique and a strong case can be made that he is the best pass rusher in the NFL based off of last season. Average salary of the top 10 NFL defensive linemen is right around $12.9 million and I would use that number in calculating a figure for him moreso than the 2.9 times as productive figure. That bumps the salary to $9.94 million a year. I think that’s a fair figure.
There could be some wiggle room in that number depending on how much you value the pass vs the run. This looks at them at the base NFL splits but many would say that when games are in question the split might be closer to 60/40 or 62/38. That only increases his value all the way up to $10.3 million. If the Bengals are willing to come close to the $10 million dollar number I would think it’s a deal worth signing provided that the guarantees are somewhere in the $20 million ballpark.
He probably has little to gain by waiting on a contract unless the Bengals really lowball him. He is coming off a career season and it is hard to imagine him having more leverage at any point in his career just from an impact standpoint as he has now. With the market correction that just occurred and the threat of a franchise tag it is probably not worth the risk to hope he hits deals set by Suh or McCoy off rookie contracts that were never designed to be for defensive tackles in the first place. We’ll have to see how it ends, but $10 million a year for a DT would be nothing to sneeze at.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.