Unlike most franchise players in the NFL, Atogwe was present throughout the entire offseason, in workouts and minicamps.
When asked recently by espn.com why he took the risk of practicing without signing the guaranteed $6.342 million tender, Atogwe said, “Me personally, I believe my future is in God’s hands, so I don’t worry about risks when I make decisions. I think about what I could possibly gain from this and what could benefit me in this situation. I am committed to this team and I am waiting to see what their commitment to me is. If it’s one year, then so be it. It’s one year. When I sign it, I’m here with the team. Going forward, if they want to do a long-term deal and sign me and have me here for years to come, then I want to keep that option open in a way that is beneficial for both of us.
“As a player, you’re really only guaranteed your next play or the play that you’re in or the year that you get. So I have this year. Going forth, I don’t know what’s going to happen after this year, I don’t know what’s going to happen after this day so I’m blessed just to be able to say, ‘OK, I get another year to play. Let me focus on that one year that I’m in and then after that we’ll worry about that.’ For today I’m worried about today.”
Many players look at being the franchise player as being a negative. Not Atogwe.
“I think everything is a good thing,” he said during the offseason. “It’s a blessing to come out here and play. And to be thought of as one of the top five at my position is an honor. I relish this.
“I don’t have to be (here) contractually, but I feel like I’m obligated to be here for my teammates and for my coaches. Going forward in this year, if I want to be a part of this team I want to be a part of this team from the beginning to the end and I think it’s important that we all put aside our own personal stuff and just really sacrifice for the team. Put the team first and allow us to come together as one unit so we can get a lot done this year.”
The NFL maintains that franchise players who haven’t signed a long-term contract by July 15 are ineligible to do so after the season. However, there is some gray area in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Article XX, Section 2(k) of the CBA says: “Any Club designating a Franchise Player shall have until 4:00 p.m., New York time, on July 15 of the League Year (or, if July 15 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the first Monday thereafter) for which the designation takes effect to sign the player to a multi-year contract or extension. After that date, the player may sign only a one-year Player Contract with his Prior Club for that season, and such Player Contract may not be extended until after the Club’s last regular season game.”
Some of the language (“After that date, the player may sign only a one-year Player Contract with his Prior Club”) seems to include only players that hadn’t signed their tender by July 15. However, other language (“to sign the player to a multi-year contract or extension”) appears to cover a player that had signed his tender because a long-term contract signed before the end of the season would be considered an extension.
The reality, however, is that Atogwe will likely play the entire season on the one-year deal. Speculation that the deal was consummated so the Rams could trade him is just that. Signing the tender wouldn’t spur sudden interest from other teams. If there was serious interest, teams have already had almost five months to make a deal.
It’s not out of the question the Rams and Atogwe could agree to a deal, and try to make it valid with the league. There also could be an agreement in principle that would be officially consummated after the 2009 season.
The Rams retain the right to franchise Atogwe again in 2010 at 120 percent of his 2008 salary ($7.61 million) or, if there is no salary cap in 2010, tender him as a restricted free agent at 110 percent of his ’08 salary ($6.976 million).
As a restricted free agent, draft-choice compensation if an offer wasn’t matched would be first- and third-round draft picks instead of the two No. 1 picks it takes to acquire a franchise player. In addition, there is no deadline for long-term contracts to be signed for restricted free agents.
Camp Calendar: Rookies, quarterbacks and selected veterans report to camp July 29 at the club’s Earth City training facility. That group will have two practices July 30, the same day the rest of the squad will report. The first full-squad practices will be July 31.
• The Rams had a good amount of roster turnover in the offseason, but there are 43 players on the training camp roster that were on the roster or injured reserve at the end of the 2008 season.
Coach Steve Spagnuolo said one of the first things he did after being named the team’s coach in January was to watch tape of the final stretch of games last season.
He said, “Even though they had struggled to a 2-14 season, I saw a team that continued to play hard in all of those games, and that’s a credit to the staff that was here before and also a reflection of the players that are here. I feel like if you at least have that, and can do some of the right things in building around that, then you have a chance.”
That was the case in 2006 when the two were at Ohio State trying to win the starting spot in the middle. Laurinaitis won, and was drafted in the second round this year.
Grant was a seventh-round pick of the 49ers last year, was cut and added to the practice squad in the beginning of the season. The Rams signed him off San Francisco’s practice squad on Nov. 26.
He played mostly on special teams, but this offseason practiced on the strong side, sometimes with the first unit.
Laurinaitis called Grant “extremely talented,” and added, “He was a leader at Ohio State, and to see him here with me is awesome, because he’s helping me out with some things in the defense. I think with Larry, you get a guy who’s extremely good with his hands, and he makes some plays. I think if he gets the chance to play football, he’s going to show some people that he’s going to be pretty good linebacker.
“We’re doing things here that we’d been used to doing at Ohio State - staying after, watching film on our own, trying to get things down. When you have guys that are already comfortable with each other, it gives you a head start communicating.”
Quote To Note: “Spags is Spags. He has a plan. He has a goal. It’s about respect. You can see it in his eyes that he will go to bat for you and give us a chance in the fourth quarter to win games. Who’s to say we can’t be that team?”—WR Keenan Burton(notes) on new coach Steve Spagnuolo.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
There are currently 84 players on the roster, including six unsigned draft picks. When all are signed, four players will have to be released to be at the training camp limit of 80.
To say this is a make-or-break season for Bulger might be a stretch, but certainly his performance will be watched closely as the team’s offense has changed again following his two worst seasons as an NFL starter. Bulger seems a perfect fit for the timing-based West Coast offense that distributes the ball to a lot of receivers including tight ends and running backs. Boller, a former first-round pick of the Ravens, missed all of last season because of a shoulder injury, and is hoping to resurrect his career with a new start. He signed a one-year contract. Berlin and Null will be competing for the No. 3 job in camp. Berlin had some solid moments in the preseason last year, while Null is a raw product from West Texas A&M.
It’s not an understatement to say the Rams’ opportunity to be competitive revolves around Jackson. He can be a game-changer with the potential for big plays, and is also a good receiver. The addition of Karney should make Jackson significantly more productive in short-yardage situations. The question is whether a host of other backs can fill the bill if Jackson can’t play. Most can be OK for short stretches, but not necessarily as a starter. Darby is a slash-type runner that is very good as a pass-catcher. Pittman has had some starting opportunities, but hasn’t stood out. Ogbonnaya, a second-round pick this year, hopes to open some eyes in camp. Gado looked good in the offseason, but will be a long shot to make the roster. Johnson has decent size, but it seems unlikely the Rams would keep two fullbacks.
This group could be a key to the team’s offensive success. The West Coast offense usually includes tight ends as key receivers, and that need is accentuated with the Rams because of the lack of experience at wide receiver. McMichael returns from a broken foot that cost him 12 games last season, and could be one of the focal points of the passing game. Fells is an intriguing prospect. Signed off the Buccaneers’ practice squad during the 2008 season, he showed some flashes while learning the offense. Now, he has had a full offseason to get acclimated with the West Coast offense, and there were times during OTAs that he and McMichael were on the field in the nickel offense, rather than there being three wide receivers on the field. Bajema was signed for his blocking prowess, and should help Karney in the running game and short yardage. This season is likely now or never for Klopfenstein, a second-round pick in 2006 who hasn’t shown much growth as a player.
Wide Receivers: Starters—Donnie Avery(notes), Keenan Burton. Backups—Laurent Robinson(notes), Derek Stanley(notes), Tim Carter(notes), Brooks Foster(notes), Chad Lucas(notes), Nate Jones(notes), Jarrett Byers, Travis Brown(notes), Horace Gant(notes), Sean Walker.
As a rookie, Avery burst on the scene after being bothered early by a hip injury and forced defenses to account for his presence. He did have some issues with consistency on route-running, but some of that was because of the offensive scheme. The West Coast offense is considered more receiver-friendly, and Avery was healthy throughout the offseason. Unfortunately, Burton wasn’t. Last season, as a rookie, he had a knee drained each week two days before games. This offseason, he tweaked a hamstring early, and barely saw the field during OTAs. He has talent, but must be able to stay on the field. Robinson showed promise as a rookie with Atlanta in 2007, but hardly played last season because of a recurring hamstring problem. Acquired in an offseason trade, he could end up being the starter if Burton doesn’t progress. Stanley got no OTA work as he recovered from 2008 ACL surgery, but is expected to be ready for the start of camp. He has excellent speed, and is probably the best kick returner on the roster. After not playing in ’08, Carter is hoping to rekindle his career after spending time with the Giants and Browns. While a speedster, he has had consistency questions. With this group, he might be able to contribute. Foster is a fifth-round pick, who was trapped on the depth chart at North Carolina behind Hakeem Nicks(notes) and Brandon Tate(notes). He has size and speed, and could make the team based on special teams ability. There are several other receivers that hope to open some eyes when the pads come on. Lucas did well in OTAs, Byers received some reps returning kickoffs, and Jones and Brown appeared solid. Competition could be fierce for the last one or two jobs.
Offensive Linemen: Starters—LT Alex Barron(notes), LG Jacob Bell(notes), C Jason Brown(notes), RG Richie Incognito(notes), RT Jason Smith(notes). Backups—T/G Adam Goldberg(notes), G John Greco(notes), C/G Mark Setterstrom(notes), T Renardo Foster(notes), G Roy Schuening(notes), T Eric Young(notes), T Phil Trautwein, G Roger Allen III, C Daniel Sanders, C Tim Mattran(notes).
Barron enters the final year of his contract with the opportunity to make some money, although he wouldn’t be an unrestricted free agent if there is no salary cap in 2010. Still, he can establish himself as a top left tackle with a good performance. He played 15 games there in 2007 when Orlando Pace(notes) was injured in the season opener. His strength is not run blocking, which is why the rookie Smith is expected to start out at right tackle, where he will be alongside Incognito. That should create a strong running game to that side. Incognito must learn how to control his emotions, while still playing intensity. Brown has come in and emerged as a leader on the line, which is what the Rams envisioned when they agreed to pay him $37.5 million over five years with $20 million guaranteed ($9 million of which are guaranteed base salaries). Bell is another key for the line. Signed as a free agent from Tennessee in 2008, he had a down year due in part to a hamstring injury. Greco, a third-round pick in ’08, is poised to take over a starting job if one of the starters falters. Goldberg was with the first unit at right tackle during OTAs, but is expected to cede that spot to the rookie Smith. Still, his versatility is good to have, considering he started at four different positions last season. Setterstrom returns from another lost season because of a knee problem. A solid guard, he worked at center during OTAs. Foster was acquired on waivers from Atlanta, is believed to have some potential at 6-7, 340. He started two games as a rookie free agent in 2007 before suffering a knee injury. Schuening has ability, but could find himself in a numbers game trying to make the roster. Young was working with the second unit at left tackle in OTAs.
Defensive Linemen: Starters—LDE Victor Adeyanju(notes), LDT Adam Carriker(notes), RDT Clifton Ryan(notes), RDE Chris Long(notes). Backups—E Leonard Little(notes), E James Hall(notes), E Eric Moore(notes), E C.J. Ah You(notes), E Ian Campbell, E Kirston Pittman, T Darell Scott, T Gary Gibson(notes), T Orien Harris(notes), T Willie Williams(notes), T Antwon Burton(notes).
This will be a challenge for coaches, trying to establish good depth and have a solid rotation, especially inside. It appears the tackles will be designated left and right side, as opposed to 3-technique and nose tackle. At end, Adeyanju and Long will likely start, with Little and Hall designated pass rushers. Hall and Long might be called on to play inside in some situations. Carriker and Ryan need to take strong steps forward to improve the run defense. Injuries have slowed Carriker during his first two seasons. The biggest competition will be for backup tackle jobs. Scott, a fourth-round pick, is expected to contribute, but after that is unknown from a group of players that include Gibson, Harris, Burton and Williams.
Linebackers: Starters—SLB Chris Draft(notes), MLB James Laurinaitis, WLB Will Witherspoon(notes). Backups—Larry Grant, David Vobora(notes), Quinton Culberson(notes), Chris Chamberlain(notes), Dominic Douglas, K.C. Asiodu.
The starting group, of course, depends on Laurinaitis being what coaches expect: A leader and tackling machine in the middle. Assuming he starts, Draft will likely move to the strong side. However, it’s possible he could end up as a versatile backup for all three positions, with Grant and Vobora possibilities as the starter on the strong side. Witherspoon moves to the weak side from the middle, where he is expected to utilize his play-making ability to help the defense. Culberson and Chamberlain will also be part of strong competition for starting jobs, depending on whether it is decided to keep six or seven linebackers. Douglas, an undrafted free agent, also impressed coaches in the OTAs.
Defensive Backs: Starters—CB Ron Bartell(notes), FS Oshiomogho Atogwe, SS James Butler(notes), CB Tye Hill(notes). Backups—CB Justin King(notes), CB Jonathan Wade(notes), CB Bradley Fletcher, CB Marcus Brown(notes), CB Quincy Butler(notes), CB Cord Parks, S Todd Johnson(notes), S Craig Dahl(notes), S Eric Bassey(notes), S David Roach(notes).
This is a very young group that nevertheless appears to be building some decent depth. Butler played for the Giants under Spagnuolo, and is expected to upgrade the run defense at strong safety. Atogwe is the ballhawk and has become adept at stripping ball carriers. Thanks to an injury to Hill, Bartell became the team’s top corner last season, and remains in that role. Hill, meanwhile, is another player potentially in a make-or-break situation. He was progressing as a rookie in 2006 before injuries derailed each of the last two seasons. If Hill can regain his confidence and play like he is capable, the secondary will be better. King and Wade will be battling for the nickel job in camp. King had moved ahead of Wade last summer while a rookie before being lost for the season with a toe injury suffered in the first preseason game. Wade has the skills necessary, but has yet to prove he can be consistent. Fletcher is a rookie third-round pick with promise, who should also contribute on special teams. Depth at safety is suspect. Johnson is good on special teams, while Dahl was also with Spagnuolo in New York, but had knee issues the last two years.
The best has been saved for last. Brown missed just five field goals in 36 attempts last season and was an impressive 6-of-8 from 50 yards or more. He was also excellent on kickoffs. Jones became the second punter in league history to average at least 50 yards per kick. The guy snapping to them, Massey, is as accurate any snapper in the league. There are questions in the kick return game. Stanley could be both the kickoff and punt returner if healthy. Training camp will likely see numerous candidates trying both jobs.