A calculated risk on Atogwe

We might have seen the last days of Oshiomogho Atogwe on the Rams, and we won’t get even a draft pick in compensation if he leaves. That’s the risk the Rams face based on their decision today, to tender Atogwe at the lowest level.

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images, from Zimbio.com

If the Rams had tendered Atogwe at a higher level — for example, asking teams for a first round pick back in compensation if they signed him away — then Kevin Demoff would be obligated to write out a check even larger than the $6.34 million that Atogwe received last season after being franchised.

Analysis after the break:

The sad truth is, it wasn’t a franchise type of year for the Rams’ free safety. Atogwe struggled early in the season to make the game-changing plays he’s known for, and lost games to injury for the first time in his career. Despite a higher rate of tackles per game, Atogwe accounted for a relatively pedestrian 2 INTs and 3 forced fumbles — not great numbers after forcing 27 turnovers in three years. This kind of production was almost unthinkable last offseason, when Atogwe profiled as one of the bright spots of the Rams’ defense.

Back in August, I had a lengthy conversation with Sam and Ben from Pro Football Focus on Atogwe that bears re-reading now.

Ben: First up I’ll go for a bit on Atogwe. His pass coverage is good, not brilliant but good enough and his performances graded out fairly consistently throughout last season with his two really poor performances (W4 vs Buffalo & W17 @ Atl) marked by some poor run defense rather than his pass coverage letting him down. His run defense was around about average all season long with three really poor games dragging his overall grade down and no really good games to balance that. This suggests what I think is known about Atogwe that he’s better utilized as a free safety as opposed to a strong safety brought up into the box to play the run. He only missed three tackles all season and they all came in the same game against Buffalo in week 4 so that’s not his issue, he’s just not great at getting off of blocks up in the box. He had three really good games in pass coverage as well, consecutively against the Redskins, Cowboys & Patriots.
Sam:His coverage skills are reasonable, but he has very good ball skills, which lets him get more picks than perhaps he deserves to get. Or more accurately his picks will always earn him a higher reputation than perhaps he deserves in terms of pure coverage ability.

Will: But are his ball skills “persistent”? That is, should we expect him to continue to be good at creating turnovers, or is that mostly luck? Or something that would get worse with age?

Sam: I think ball skills are usually pretty constant. Some guys have a feel for the ball and are very good at going up and getting it when it’s in the air. It’s not just hands, but understanding the flight of the ball and being able to get to the right spot to get it. I don’t see any reason that would change with Atogwe – what could change year to year is the number of opportunities you get to make those plays – sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

Will: So how should the Rams approach his contract situation?

Ben: The use of the franchise tag suggests that the team thinks he’s a top 5 safety but as you’re probably aware that’s not necessarily what it means, merely that he’s someone that the team thinks is worth keeping around. I think he is someone worth keeping around, he’s a useful free safety with the eye for the big play but not amongst the league’s elite.
Sam: It would be up to the Rams obviously to figure out how much weight they’d put in his ball-hawking ability vs the rest of his play, but i think it’s definitely something i’d bear in mind.

The thing that jumps out at me in Atogwe’s year is that he was asked to play a lot of snaps close to the line of scrimmage, particularly in the weeks when James Butler went down to injury. This helped boost his tackle numbers (including a season high 10 in week 6), but didn’t help the overall defense, and paradoxically seemed to hurt his ability to make big plays. All five of his turnovers came when Butler was on the field. He seldom got to play in space, and make the aggressive calculations against the pass that give him the rep as a turnover machine.

However, perhaps his best game came against the team’s best opponent, the Super Bowl Champion Saints. Atogwe had five tackles, a key interception of Drew Brees in the red zone, and a forced fumble on Pierre Thomas that slowed yet another scoring drive. His tenacity in the second half was part of the best team effort the Rams put forth all season.

So we know what kind of risk the Rams are taking, what’s the potential reward? The Rams still retain “right of first refusal” on any contract offer made, and hope that this offer will represent some kind of savings versus his Franchise tag numbers. After Antrelle Rolle, Atogwe may be the most coveted free agent safety out there, though, so we could be saying farewell to one of the few defensive stars this team has, and getting nothing back in return.