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Atogwe, Rams face decisions on contract
BY JIM THOMAS
As each playoff weekend comes and goes in the NFL, the Rams and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe come closer to a decision on the veteran safety's future in St. Louis.
The first of two important mileposts is less than three weeks away. The day after the Super Bowl, or Feb. 7, Atogwe can void the final four years of a five-year contract he signed with the Rams last June 25.
If Atogwe voids the contract, he becomes a free agent, leaving a significant hole at the position for the Rams. However, there doesn't seem to be much incentive for Atogwe to void the contract, because the second milepost arrives just two weeks later, or on Feb. 21. That's when Atogwe is due an $8 million roster bonus by the Rams.
Why not wait two weeks to see if the Rams pay him the $8 million roster bonus? If they do, Atogwe stays. If they don't, he's released and becomes a free agent anyway.
"I want to be back," Atogwe said following the Rams' season-ending loss to Seattle. "However we can make that work, we'll talk about it. Going forward, it's just whatever God has for me, whatever God has for the organization ... and I'm cool with that."
Whether the organization is willing to make that kind of investment in Atogwe remains to be seen. Atogwe had another solid season for the Rams but not the kind of year that would make paying the bonus a slam-dunk.
Atogwe, 29, finished fourth on the squad in tackles (87), with three interceptions and three forced fumbles. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2006, Atogwe has 43 combined interceptions and forced fumbles — a league high. That total breaks down to 22 forced fumbles and 21 interceptions; the 21 INTs is fifth most in the NFL over that span, trailing only Asante Samuel (36), Ed Reed (32), Charles Woodson (30) and DeAngelo Hall (24). Reed is the only other safety in the group.
Atogwe was used more on blitzes this past season, finishing with two sacks, six quarterback hits and three QB pressures.
Beyond that, his leadership qualities were recognized twice by his teammates. At the start of the season, he was voted defensive team captain. At the end of the season, he was named winner of the Rams' Carl Ekern Spirit of the Game Award, which recognizes sportsmanship, hard work and commitment to teammates.
"I played OK," Atogwe said. "I'm thankful and I praise God that I made it through this season. I played the whole season and I hadn't done that last year. I had a lot of fun here, being with the guys again. Going forward, I'm excited."
Atogwe missed the final four games of the 2009 season with a shoulder injury, but those are the only games he has missed over five seasons since becoming a starter in '06.
The Rams made a noticeable leap on defense in 2010, the second season under the defensive scheme of head coach Steve Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole. The unit finished in the top 10 in the league in third-down defense (second), touchdowns allowed (tied for fourth) and sacks (seventh). All told, the Rams gave up 108 fewer points in 2010 than they did in '09.
Atogwe thinks Year 3 in the system can be even better.
"We're really going to be operating at a graduate level, as we like to say," Atogwe said. "It's just continuing to get better at what we've been doing. Players have been getting better individually at their craft. As a unit, we're not even peaking yet."
A third-round draft pick in 2005, Atogwe has been seeking the relative security of a multi-year deal since his original contract expired. He has gone from restricted free agent in 2008, to franchise player in '09, and then back to restricted free agent in March 2010 (an unusual side effect of the uncapped year). Atogwe signed his current contract only after staying away from the Rams' offseason conditioning program and spring practice period during his contract impasse.
The unusual features of his current contract — the post-Super Bowl void option, and the huge Feb. 21 roster bonus — reflect the inability of the Rams and Atogwe to agree on his long-term worth.
One way around paying the full $8 million Feb. 21 might be a restructured contract that moves the money around, or perhaps even pays him less. So far this offseason, the Rams are not known to have engaged in any talks with Atogwe's agent about the bonus. The club might simply be waiting to see if Atogwe voids.
Even with Atogwe back, one could make a case that the Rams need another body at safety anyway. James Butler didn't play much over the second half of the season, giving way to Craig Dahl in the starting lineup at strong safety and casting doubts over Butler's future here. Butler is due a base salary of $3 million, which is a lot for a third or fourth safety.
Dahl was an active, aggressive performer in 2010, finishing second on the team in tackles (93) and recording two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a sack. But there were also games, the finale against Seattle among them, in which Dahl missed tackles and took bad angles to the ball.
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