Bengals In Middle Of Riches On Defensive Front

If you can remember when the Bengals had three defensive tackles this good, three guys that have been on an NFL top 100 list at one time or another, go to the head of the class. That’s what they’ve got now after Mike Daniels fluttered into the fold Wednesday morning to spell Geno Atkins and D.J. Reader in a back-up role. 

Mike Daniels joins the fold as Bengals bulk up.
Mike Daniels joins the fold as Bengals bulk up.

If you can remember when the Bengals had three defensive tackles this good, three guys that have been on an NFL top 100 list at one time or another, go to the head of the class.

That's what they've got now after Mike Daniels floated from the sky and fluttered into the fold Wednesday morning like Christmas to spell Geno Atkins and D.J. Reader in a back-up but key role. He's a gift for a defense that in the last three seasons has given up the most rushing yards in the NFL and puts on pads for the first time Tuesday.

"Anytime you've got three veterans who have been doing it for a long time at a high level, you feel good as a position coach and a defense," said Nick Eason, a defensive line coach feeling pretty good Wednesday after the morning walkthrough. "Huge upgrade for us.

  "All these guys are a reckoning force against the run and they are a reckoning force in the pass game," Eason said. "They're not only great players, but they're all leaders. How they go about their business on the field, in the weight room and the classroom. Very professional. These are the kind of guys we're looking to bring to the Cincinnati Bengals."

So it was rather fitting that Wednesday was the first day both Reader and Daniels made their Cincinnati public debuts. In separate calls the media was able to Zoom in on the two most engaging interviews of training camp, opening the locker room a sliver in this lockdown and giving a glimpse why the Bengals believe the 26-year-old Reader and 31-year-old Daniels are so good for chemistry.

Despite signing the biggest free-agent deal in Bengals history at a heady $53 million for the next four years, the 317-pound Reader shed maybe as much weight (about 30 pounds) as the guaranteed millions he collected. Even Rocky, his nine-month-old son, is on the diet.

"Eating smart and then you get in a routine of working so hard that you're like 'Man, if I go home and eat this, I'm going to mess it all up and then I'm just going to start over tomorrow.' You get tired of starting over," Reader said. "If you don't get tired of starting over, you're crazy.

"I have a son now. He's pretty healthy, based off his little diet and not being able to have certain things. We do this thing called baby-led weaning where we don't make baby food, we cut our regular food into strips. So he has to eat what we eat. So it kind of turns your meals a little healthier because you realize he can't eat certain stuff. That helped out a lot." 

Daniels also relies on his family. He has four children, ages 9-1, three born on Aug. 3 ("I have a built in day to leave camp," he says) and his pregnant wife Heaven spots him while lifting in the home gym he built when the pandemic closed everything down in March. Not only did he build it when he was in Michigan, when he moved the family back to Wisconsin he broke it down, moved it and built it back again with the help of his father.

 Squat rack. Dead-lift platform. Skiers. Treadmill. He's got it all.

"It took a lot of man power and elbow grease, but I have fond memories of doing it," Daniels said. "If nobody's worked out, then that's on them. You've got to be a pro. That's kind of what I took pride in … You really have to take this process seriously. It was definitely a unique year but I feel like it gave me an opportunity to get in front of this thing.

"Gyms are closed, then (I'll) build my own gym. If trainers are unavailable, then I'll find my own. We can't go running anywhere inside the building, (then) I'm going to go running at the local park with my sled."

These two guys even have Atkins talking. Atkins has said virtually zilch to the media coming up on six years now, but he said enough to help convince Daniels to come here. The 6-0, 310-pound Daniels has been watching Atkins ever since college, when Ravens Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda came back to visit the Iowa weight room and advised Daniels to watch this up-and-coming kid in Cincinnati with about the same build.

"My first couple of years I really studied his game and just the power he plays with," Daniels said. "He's definitely somebody who I've always admired his game and I got to know him as a person too. He's even better to me than he is a player, so I'm really looking forward to sharing the locker room and meeting room and being on the defensive line with him.

"Geno actually reached out to me and said, 'I really look forward to us potentially playing next to each other.'"

But if you want a driving force behind the free-agent wooing of Reader back in March and this week's quick-strike grab of Daniels, look no farther than Eason, the huge, intense former Steeler defensive end with a Super Bowl ring who began his nine-season NFL run in the Cleveland trenches.

Yes, Bengals ownership rolled out the dough for Reader with the richest free-agent deal in Bengals history.

No question, director of player personnel Duke Tobin and his staff responded quickly and seamlessly in the first week of camp last month when they suddenly lost back-up tackles Josh Tupou and Ryan Glasgow.

Certainly, Steven Radicevic, the Bengals' director of pro scouting, was the point man in identifying them in the pool and keeping his eye on the details of the Reader and Daniels deals.

And, sure. Atkins spoke up.

But Eason has a ring, played in the big game twice and spend five minutes with him and it's clear he knows his way around an NFL trench. As a fellow Clemson alum, Reader remembered Eason from his visits to campus and the relationship helped back in March. When Daniels suddenly became a free agent before last season, Eason, new in his job with the Bengals, knew all about him. 

"I didn't really know about (Eason). I really didn't, but I got to learn a lot about him just from the times we spoke on the phone and the Zoom meetings that we had," Daniels said. "I can definitely tell why everybody likes him, why all the players gravitate towards him and why his room really respects him. He's definitely a guy I look forward to being coached by and learning from and really getting acclimated with on the dynamics of becoming a Bengal. I'm really looking forward to following his lead."

Back in March when the Bengals first began courting Reader, the coaches couldn't talk to the players. But Reader felt comfort knowing Eason was here.

"I thought, 'OK, that's somebody I'm familiar with, that's awesome,'" Reader said back then to "He came back to talk to us when he was transitioning out of the league as a player. He was one of those guys on the highlights back when they had a couple of guys stealing the show and he was one of the really good guys. He was in Tennessee (coaching on the Titans defensive line) when I was coming out. He came down and worked me out. I knew what he was about I liked him."

 There were other factors, of course. Remember, Daniels, 31, was a fourth-round pick of the Packers in 2012 and saw the Marvin Lewis Bengals perennially go to playoffs. The Bengals were a team to watch. And Daniels lived it. He played in a Paul Brown Stadium game in 2013 when the Bengals defense literally stole one from Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers had to go to overtime at Lambeau to beat them in 2017 on a day Daniels remembered Bengals rookie end Carl Lawson bagging 2.5 sacks.

"I always admired the Bengals. I remember we came here in 2013 and despite our efforts on defense, we had four turnovers and a touchdown we still lost the game because they were a tough, hard-nosed defense," Daniels said. "They had Coach Lewis (and Mike) Zimmer if I'm not mistaken. But that's the mentality of the organization. We're going to play tough, it's a tough division, going to be tough on defense, offensive line is going to be tough, we are going to run the ball hard. I've always admired that.

"The Bengals are always a team whose defensive line I've watched and said man, we need to play with that kind of intensity, that level of aggression, that type of violence. The Bengals were definitely a team I looked to like that. Seattle kind of exemplified like that. And the Ravens. In Green Bay we always struggled against that type of knock you down, tough defenses. I always wanted to be part of something like that and now I get the opportunity to."

All three players have something to prove, too now, at different points in their careers.

Atkins, 32, made the Pro Bowl last season, but only on rep and not his mere 4.5 sacks. And it wasn't all his fault. He was overworked and didn't get a lot of help from his offense. But the fact is he has made six top 100 lists in his career, but not last year.

Daniels, rated a top 100 NFL player by his peers from 2016-18, has ended the last two seasons on injured reserve, and says this is the best he's felt since 2017.

"I was just really looking forward to this opportunity," Daniels said. "I feel refreshed, I feel so happy, I'm just so thankful, almost overwhelmed really for this opportunity. It's a new conference, a bunch of different teams. I'm just looking forward to it.

Reader, looking to step out of the shadow of J.J. Watt in Houston after a break-out fourth season, made last season's top 101 players for

"If you want to be good at something, you really have to pay attention to it," Reader said. "And you've got to take your opportunities when you get them, recognize film more and study more. Just having guys like J.J. and those guys in the room just help you with determination. There wasn't always a good year when you like killed it. Some years you didn't and there's always coming back. You've got to know that those things happen. They come and go and they come and go. You can never be satisfied. You just got to keep working. "

To Eason's eye, Atkins has rebounded well in the offseason and now he's got the people to lighten his load in practice and games after he played a career-high 816 snaps last year.

"Geno looks great. He's always in good shape, but now he's fresh. He's healthy," Eason said. "He's moving well out there. Geno got worn down last year. You get a guy playing at a high level for a number of years, he's taken a lot of snaps. You need to limit him in practice and games as much as you can and in order to do that you have to have quality depth at every spot. I've been on Super Bowl teams and when you get quality depth in there, you can win a lot of games."

Eason knows quality when he sees it. You know how he feels about Atkins and his great career and you know how much he loves Reader's hunger to be good and how he thinks his athleticism gives them the ability to move around up front.

Here's his take on Daniels via the tape:

"Big-time athlete. Plays the run real well," Eason said. "He does a good job striking and getting off blocks. He can rush the passer. He gives you great pocket push. He knows how to work the edge of blockers. He trains hard, takes care of his body. Knows how to work."

We're about to see the best Bengals middle since, when? go to work.