Whenever Baraka Atkins has watched the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys play on television the past few seasons, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking that he could have helped those teams — if they had just kept him.
Atkins, who played two seasons for the Seahawks but hasn’t appeared in an NFL regular-season game since 2008, is at training camp with the Saints, auditioning to be a strongside outside linebacker. He has been cut from the past several camps he has attended — with the Seahawks, Broncos, Steelers and Cowboys — and he was released by the 49ers, who signed him in the middle of a season, before he appeared in a game for them.
“When I was released ... last year, I felt like I could’ve been out there contributing,” Atkins said.
“Before, I felt like I could’ve been contributing on that team. Anytime I see a former team that I was on, I felt like I could’ve had some input on the game.”
The Saints are perhaps one of the best — and last — opportunities for Atkins, who turns 29 on Sept. 28, to make it back to the other side of the television screen during the regular season. The Saints’ projected starter at strongside outside linebacker, Victor Butler, tore the ACL in his left knee at OTAs and might miss the season; his probable backup, Martez Wilson, dislocated his elbow Monday and will be out two to four weeks.
Atkins, 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, has been intermittently practicing with the second team since Wilson’s injury, which also created chances for rookies Rufus Johnson, Eric Martin and Chase Thomas. Coach Sean Payton explained Wednesday that it is routine for the Saints to rotate prospects in and out of the first, second and third teams, but he did say Atkins “is picking up things — and a lot is being thrown at him, too.”
Seattle drafted Atkins as a defensive end out of Miami with a fourth-round pick in 2007. He played 21 games for the Seahawks in 2007 and ’08, amassing 20 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries before the team released him during the 2009 preseason.
San Francisco signed Atkins in December 2009 but released him after two games; he was inactive for each. Denver and Pittsburgh cut him in September of the 2010 and ’11 preseasons and Dallas cut him in August of the 2012 preseason.
Atkins said he has spent much of the time in between those camps at his old high school in Sarasota, Fla., and at Miami, training for another shot in the NFL or helping to coach aspiring players. He has seen former teammates at Miami become established players in the NFL, among them Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
The same is true for players he lined up with in Seattle — such as Will Herring, another 2007 draft pick for the Seahawks and a member of the Saints since 2010.
“The hardest part most times has been ... watching the games at home,” Atkins said. “Seeing those guys from (Miami and Seattle) still playing, I want to be out there with them.”
To that end, Atkins in May signed with the Saints, whose defense is now under the command of coordinator Rob Ryan. Atkins, who became somewhat familiar with Ryan’s 3-4 defense when they were in Dallas last season, wouldn’t say whether this was going to be his last attempt to return to the NFL.
But if it is, at least one former teammate believes the outcome could be different this summer than the previous four.
“He’s gotten better every day,” said Herring, a seventh-year pro. “He’s got an opportunity, and I think he’s going to make it count.”