Seemingly flying in the face of tradition—team owner Mike Brown has long had a notorious reputation as being particularly stingy with the team's salary cap, regardless of the talent level of the players whose contracts are nearing expiry—the Bengals are now in the top five in the league on player spending this year.
However, there's a good reason why the Bengals have chosen to spend so much money, especially on players like Atkins. Continuity is vital in today's NFL, especially on defense.
Cincinnati's defense had the third-most sacks in the NFL last year, with 51, and 12.5 of those belonged to Atkins, who was Pro Football Focus' top-rated defensive tackle (subscription required). He also added 13 additional quarterback hits and an astounding 53 hurries to his total quarterback pressures last year, and his presence on the defensive line had a boosting effect to the players around him.
With Atkins remaining a constant in Cincinnati, perhaps through the rest of his career, it provides the Bengals an anchor from which they can build—especially considering how much young and promising depth they have in their front seven.
The signing also means that Atkins won't have any contract-related distractions to his season and that the Bengals can avoid the constant question of when—or whether—they'd be willing to give Atkins a new deal.
In the official release, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said, "It puts the issue of his future behind him and the club and allows his focus to be on football and on a great start to our season."
Now Atkins doesn't have to spend any part of the season wondering whether or not the Bengals truly value his contributions to the team. He doesn't have to concern himself with potentially being given the franchise tag in the spring. There are no questions about Atkins' importance to the Bengals' short- and long-term success, and now he can focus on football, which is what got him such an impressive contract extension to begin with.
The signing also sends a message that the present-day Bengals aren't unwilling to spend money, a perception that has dogged them for years. The fact that the Bengals have spent so much of their reserved cash this year by giving contracts to 13 of their veterans, not including Atkins (and, tellingly, eight of those to the defense), shows that there is finally a sense of satisfaction about their roster.
The front seven, in particular, has seen a lot of financial attention in 2013. Defensive end Michael Johnson is playing on an $11.175 franchise tag this season, but another double-digit sack performance should earn him a new contract next year.
Fellow defensive ends Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap also got new deals this year, as did linebacker Rey Maualuga. They also signed free agent James Harrison to a two-year deal in the spring. In the secondary, cornerbacks Adam Jones and Terence Newman also got extensions.
The talent of the defense appears to have trumped the organizational desire to keep any excess cash firmly in their own pockets.
The Atkins extension also sets an example for other members of Cincinnati's roster, both on offense and defense, that stellar performances will be rewarded. The ongoing public relations turnaround of the Bengals that began in 2011 when they drafted Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, and the corresponding return to postseason relevance has resulted in this being a smart franchise built for the long term. The players who have helped that happen are going to be retained.
This isn't a team that throws large contracts to undeserving players and hopefully never will be, but now it's not a team that will let its best players walk in favor of frugality. The Bengals' current level of talent is just too compelling for the old narrative to work any longer.
Atkins got the money he is worth before he really had to worry about whether he'd ever get it. Cincinatti retains its best defensive player for at least the next five years. The Bengals haven't even played their first regular-season game. This is a good sign that the new trend in Cincinnati is not to financially stiff players who deserve better but to finally recognize talent worth saving.