Rams lose Atogwe, may not look far for his replacement

The Rams lose a big playmaker, but was he already partially lost in Spagnuolo’s system?

Scene: Washington, DC. Reporters huddled en masse around a nondescript conference room while the clock ticked down on the NFL’s last-ditch bargaining session. Somewhere amidst the speculative tweets questioning whether owners and players would announce an extension to their deadline (they did), a lone missive snuck in from Rams beat reporter Jim Thomas.

Redskins agree to terms with atogwe according to league sources.

Suddenly Rams fans, most of whom have been pretty apathetic — or at least dulled into submission — by the constant tolling of death knells for the league, were aflame. Enraged. In disbelief.

The spiritual captain of the Rams on defense, one of the longest-tenured Rams on the roster, one of the few playmakers that survived the Zygmunt purge, gone.

Shrugging off the obvious emotion of the situation, though, the question is: how much will Spagnuolo’s defense actually miss him?

Spags inherited one of the top defensive game-changers in the NFL when he took over as coach after the 2008 season. In fact, his 27 combined forced fumbles and interceptions from 2006-08 led all NFL defensive backs during that span.

However, getting to those balls requires taking some risks — anathema to the Rams coach. Rather than let one man roam free in the backfield, Spags asks both of his safeties to play close to the box, keeping them closer to the play but essentially making them interchangeable. Accordingly, while his tackle numbers got a slight bump, Atogwe dropped from the ranks of “elite” defensive backs to the ranks of the “good” in 2009 and 2010, totaling only 10 turnovers in that time.

With Craig Dahl essentially entrenched at one safety spot, this leaves the second spot open, and three young candidates could be auditioning to fill that role:

  • Kevin Payne: Considered more of a hitter than a cover safety, Payne was ready to make a physical impact on the Rams before a preseason knee injury shelved him. Depending on his health, the former Bear could be thrust into a primary role.

  • Darian Stewart: The undrafted rookie only played 195 snaps — one more than dime corner Justin King — but impressed with some heads-up plays in the season’s last few games. A long shot to become a starter, but could see his rotation bumped up.

  • Jerome Murphy: The Rams’ third-round pick at CB earned only 182 snaps — many of them on special teams, where his natural hitting ability could be an asset. At USF, Murphy played both safety and corner, though he was groomed as a CB for the draft. However, even from training camp it was obvious that his coverage skills were not at the pro level — he may find a faster path to playing time in Atogwe’s shoes, especially with Bradley Fletcher emerging as counterpart to Ron Bartell.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Atogwe is reunited with former Rams defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who apparently is willing to let his defensive backs freelance as much as they want — cornerback Deangelo Hall alone intercepted four balls in one game. Fantasy IDP players take note… the old game-changing Atogwe may be making a quick comeback.