- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- Anonymity for Geno Atkins, one of the top defensive players in the league, has gotten to the point where he not only accepts it, he makes a game out of it. When Atkins walks through airports in the offseason, people recognize he's a football player. They just don't know his name, and they don't know he plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. Atkins asks if they can guess his position.
"They usually say linebacker," Atkins said at a recent minicamp. "Most people are surprised when I say defensive tackle."
Granted, Atkins isn't built like most defensive tackles. But, at 6-foot-1, 300 pounds, he is the defensive tackle in the game right now. It's not even close.
The Baltimore Ravens' Haloti Ngata is more popular after going to four straight Pro Bowls and winning the Super Bowl last season. Atkins has recorded 20 sacks over the past two seasons, doubling Ngata's total.
The Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh is more well-known because of his nasty streak and controversial incidents. According to Pro Football Focus, Atkins' 62 total hits and hurries last season were 13 more than the next-best defensive tackle, which was Suh.
Atkins' 12.5 sacks last season were tied for the 15th-most in a single season by a defensive tackle in NFL history. What did this earn Atkins? He didn't get one vote for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, which went to the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt. He also didn't crack the top 20 in the NFL Network's list of top players in 2013, debuting at No. 36 after not getting ranked his first two seasons.
Atkins is far from under the radar anymore, but he remains the NFL's best unknown star.
"I think the people in the NFL, the players and coaches, know how great he is," Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. "I don’t think he cares what everyone else thinks."
Anyone who watches film of Atkins understands, he's that scary bundle of strength, determination and athleticism. He's one of the few defensive players who not only can beat blockers, but embarrass them. His quickness -- which Atkins' father, former NFL safety Gene Atkins, takes credit for -- gives him that burst to bust through double teams before linemen have the chance to get out of their stance. His high motor allows him to chase down quarterbacks and running backs from the other side of the field.
Atkins weighs about 30 pounds less than Ngata and the Patriots' Vince Wilfork, but he plays bigger than his size because of power and leverage. Considered one of the strongest defensive linemen coming out of college, Atkins now bench-presses 500 pounds and squats 550 pounds. Being shorter than most defensive tackles, Atkins can get his hands under the blocker's pads to get them off balance and sometimes get the bigger linemen off their feet.
In a game against Pittsburgh last season, Atkins drove left guard Willie Colon 5 yards into the backfield before tossing the 315-pound lineman to the side and sacking Ben Roethlisberger. In a playoff game against Houston, Atkins pushed back Chris Myers so far into the backfield that the two-time Pro Bowl center knocked into running back Arian Foster for the tackle.
"You have to bring your ‘A’ game," said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, who played against Atkins in high school and in the Southeastern Conference. "Anything less, you’re going to have a long day."
Few defensive players, much less tackles, are as consistent as Atkins. He recorded at least a half-sack in 10 games last season. In the six games he was shut out, he had at least three quarterback hurries in half of them.
"The guy is maybe one of the most powerful interior linemen that you’ll ever see," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said last season. "Obviously, it’s tough to get sacks from the interior, and when you get the number of sacks that he’s had from his position, you know he’s something special. You better pay attention to him and know where he is, and you better try to do a few things to kind of help control him, because he can disrupt the entire ballgame.”
No one really paid much attention to Atkins coming out of Georgia three years ago. He had a total of three sacks his final two years in college after having 7.5 as a sophomore.
Atkins fell to the fourth round of the 2010 draft and was the 13th defensive tackle selected that year. This was a draft when three defensive tackles -- Suh, Gerald McCoy and Dan Williams -- went in the first round.
"I thought I was a lot better than when I went," Atkins said. "Obviously, going into the draft, they base it off measurements and tangibles to be 6-3 and weigh 310 and have the arm length. They don’t really look at the film as much, but the size. I knew once I got in the league, if I was given a chance, I would go full speed."
Atkins' hard work will pay off handsomely soon. He is in the final year of his rookie contract that will pay him $1.4 million this season, which is far less than what Randy Starks ($8.45 million), Henry Melton ($8.45 million) and McCoy ($8 million) will make. The Bengals have to give Atkins big money either next year or in 2015 (if they use the franchise tag in 2014). If the Bengals don't, Atkins will hit free agency and get the attention he deserves.