Geno Atkins remains a free agent. Remember him? He's the defensive tackle who set the standard for the position before Aaron Donald dominated everyone in his way. The 33-year-old 3-technique can still be a valuable late-offseason signing for a handful of teams even though everything went wrong for him a season ago.
For a long time, Atkins and Donald were the best of the best. Atkins made eight Pro Bowls, including six consecutively from the 2014 campaign to 2019. His explosiveness to disrupt opposing offenses was off the charts. No other defensive tackle posted more quarterback pressures since Atkins entered the league in 2010, per Pro Football Focus.
But his relationship with the Cincinnati Bengals deteriorated.
Atkins played in only eight games last season and saw a drastic change in usage. The coaching staff decided to go younger along their defensive front, and Atkins' reps decreased. Basically, the defensive tackle became a sub-package pass-rusher. In October, sources told the Cincinnati Enquirer's Tyler Dragon that the coaching staff told Atkins the move was "what's best for the team," and he was upset with the decision.
A shoulder injury derailed the 11-year veteran's season and landed him on injured reserve in December. Still, Atkins graded as a top-three defensive tackle when he did play, according to PFF.
The Bengals released one of the franchise's all-time best players March 19 and moved forward with a new-look front, including free-agent acquisitions Larry Ogunjobi and Trey Hendrickson.
Meanwhile, Atkins continued to rehab from a torn rotator cuff. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the defensive lineman will be cleared by doctors by July 1 with multiple teams interested in his services, as they should be.
At this point in Atkins' career, and given the timing of his eventual signing, he's probably not an every-down defender. But he'll be valuable to any locker room and can still affect contests from an interior spot. Four potential contenders are logical landing spots as Atkins chases another postseason berth and possibly a championship as his career winds down.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay tops every list when a veteran shakes free from his previous team. The reasons are obvious.
First, the Buccaneers are the reigning Super Bowl champions. Second, the majority of last year's squad, including all 22 starters, remains intact. Third, the franchise showed a willingness to bring in multiple veterans a year ago with much success. Finally, Tampa Bay's window to win is now.
Atkins has never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. Playing for the league's best team—and in his home state—seems like a clear connection.
In Tampa Bay's case, depth along the defensive front remains one of the roster's few weak points.
Again, the starters return. But Ndamukong Suh is 34. Vita Vea has missed time in two of his three seasons, including 11 regular-season contests a year ago.
The team's defense is supremely talented on the edges with Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and this year's first-round pick, Joe Tryon. The interior could use a boost with Atkins capable of bringing some of the explosiveness seen during the unit's Super Bowl LV uprising.
Atkins can join former running mate Carlos Dunlap in the Great Northwest with the Seahawks. The veteran defensive end suffered through the same situation a year ago with the Bengals. Unlike Atkins, Cincinnati traded Dunlap to Seattle where he re-signed this offseason.
The Seahawks didn't have many assets to upgrade their defensive front this offseason. The reigning NFC West champs signed Aldon Smith and Al Woods but to minimal deals. Atkins would have to agree to a similar salary structure unless the Seahawks get creative with their salary-cap accounting.
But Atkins would immediately walk in as the team's best 3-technique, even at an advanced age.
A defensive line rotation that features him, Poona Ford, L.J. Collier, Kerry Hyder Jr., Benson Mayowa, Smith and Dunlap, as well as contributions from Woods, Bryan Mone and Darrell Taylor, should give the Seahawks plenty of depth.
Seattle's defense started slowly last season but played well down the stretch. The unit could build on its late success while improving along the defensive line.
Anything to help the team and take pressure off quarterback Russell Wilson should be viewed as a positive.
What better way to stick it to Atkins' old team than by signing with its cross-state rival?
The Browns were busy this offseason as general manager Andrew Berry realized last year's defense wasn't good enough. All three levels received a face-lift, but the defensive front may not be complete.
Cleveland released veteran defensive tackle and team leader Sheldon Richardson to save $12 million toward this year's salary cap. The number is important because it'll help the team both in the short and long term thanks to rollover space.
Berry won't overspend to bring in another quality defender. But he's not unwilling to spend, either. He previously discussed the possibility of bringing back Richardson.
The goal is to maximize what the team has in Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.
Between those two, veteran Malik Jackson and Andrew Billings, a former Atkins teammate, are projected to start at defensive tackle. Behind Jackson and Billings, the team invested draft and free-agent capital in Jordan Elliott, Tommy Togiai and Marvin Wilson. Sheldon Day is in the mix as well. The front office even took a flyer on 2017 second-round pick Malik McDowell, who's been out of the league since 2019.
Even with these possibilities, the Browns aren't set along their defensive interior. A steady veteran presence at a discounted price may be exactly what the franchise needs to complete its defensive overhaul.
The previous three teams all have Super Bowl aspirations. Each made the playoffs last season. The Vikings finished 7-9, just outside the playoff picture. With that said, Mike Zimmer's squad is one year removed from a 10-6 record and a postseason berth.
How the Vikings progress this fall may be in question, but they're closer to being one of the NFC's better teams than not.
Defensively, Minnesota gets Michael Pierce back after the defensive tackle opted out of last season. Plus, the organization signed Dalvin Tomlinson to a two-year, $21 million free-agent contract.
Where would Atkins fit? Well, the better question is, "Why would Atkins fit?"
Paul Guenther is a senior defensive assistant on Zimmer's staff. Guenther spent eight seasons on the Bengals staff during Atkins' tenure in Cincinnati, including four as the team's defensive coordinator. While Guenther isn't a Vikings play-caller, his input should be strongly considered in this case.
Pierce and Tomlinson should form a mountainous and immovable interior, though they're not the most explosive defensive tackles. Atkins would be an ideal complementary piece to help the unit's pass rush.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.