Atkins was a fierce defender who was known for using his immense size and agility to his advantage. At 6'8", Atkins would often bat passes down at the line of scrimmage and would use his skills as a high jump champion to leapfrog blockers and get to the quarterback. Atkins was one of the first great exclusively defensive players in professional football and, along with fellow Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti, revolutionized the defensive end position.
Atkins originally went to Tennessee on a basketballscholarship, but once football coach General Robert R. Neyland saw his combination of size and agility, he was recruited for the grid team. After he earned All-America honors in 1952, the Cleveland Browns selected him with their first choice in the 1953 NFL Draft. Atkins also played on the 1951 Tennessee Volunteers football team that won the national championship. Atkins is one of the few players in Tennessee history to have his number retired. He was considered one of, if not the, most dominant defensive players in SEC history. Atkins was the only unanimous selection to the SEC All Quarter-Century team and was selected as the overall SEC "Player of the Quarter-Century" for the years 1950-1975.
Atkins began his playing career with the Cleveland Browns, but his peak years of his 17-year career came with the Chicago Bears. Atkins' first two seasons were played with the Browns before he was traded to the Bears in 1955. In Chicago, Atkins quickly became the leader of a devastating defensive unit. With the Bears, Atkins was a First Team All-Pro selection in 1958, 1960, 1961, and 1963; along with being a starter in the Pro Bowl in eight of his last nine years with Chicago. Before the 1967 season, Atkins requested a trade from Chicago and was traded to the New Orleans Saints, with whom he would end his career in 1969.
Even though he only played three seasons for New Orleans, the club retired his #81, one of two numbers originally retired by the franchise. The other, #31, belongs to Hall of Fame fullback Jim Taylor, a long-time rival of Atkins during Taylor's days with the Green Bay Packers.
The NFL Network ranked him as the #9 Pass Rusher of All Time in its Top Ten show.