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Rams have big decision to make with Atogwe

Don't overlook the impact of St. Louis Rams FS Oshiomogho Atogwe's shoulder injury might have on his future with the team. From ESPN's Mike Sando today:

The potentially season-ending shoulder injury Atogwe suffered against the Bears makes this a good time to revisit his long-term future with the team. The Rams will have paid more than $6 million to Atogwe this season after naming him their franchise player. As much as the Rams appreciate Atogwe's approach and production, it's tough to envision a team with limited resources investing top dollar in a long-term deal for a good-but-not-great safety. The shoulder injury could make it tougher for Atogwe to command what he's worth even if he hits the market during the offseason.

That's tough to hear, given that Atogwe has been one of the few bright spots for the Rams defense since 2006, but as soon as news spread yesterday about Atogwe potentially being done for the season you had to know that this could impact his contract situation and status with the team.

Barring some major accord being reached between the league and the players union, the 2010 season will be uncapped. That means players with less than six seasons of experience who would otherwise qualify as unrestricted free agents at the end of their contracts - the rule is four seasons with the cap in place - will be restricted free agents. Atogwe reached the end of his rookie deal with the Rams last year, and the team used the franchise tag to keep him for 2009. Normally, he'd be an unrestricted free agent, but this year he'll be restricted, meaning that the Rams can tender him an offer and other teams would have to dole out draft picks should they sign him as a RFA. Or, the team could not tender him (or any RFA) an offer, but that would be kind of foolish except for players teams do not want back next season. An RFA offer would pay Atogwe considerably less than what he could earn as a free agent, hence his desire to get a long term deal with the Rams.

Will the Rams bring him back? Who knows. If the Rams go the RFA route with Atogwe, they risk a very unhappy player who won't have any leverage to holdout in that situation as he plays one more year to re-establish himself in the wake of this injury before the opportunity for a big pay day in 2011, when the threat of a lockout looms. Texans TE Owen Daniels ended up in a very similar situation this year.

The Rams have the first right of refusal if another team does make a contract offer to Atogwe. The player can refuse the offer outright, but can't play that season. Holding out isn't an option if they do sign such an offer because they risk being sued. What they can do is trade that player, or that player can demand to be traded, and let the new team figure out his contract.

The uncapped year and the RFA rules mean that the free agent market will be virtually nonexistent next season. Certainly not the free for all it usually is. Add to that the other restrictions imposed upon teams because of the lapsed CBA (such as the final four playoff teams not being allowed to sign free agents) and I think it sets up a much more active trade market than the NFL is used to seeing. Something to remember as we consider what free agent moves the Rams could/should make to rebuild the team.

As for Atogwe, the Rams can keep him on the cheap via the RFA route and try to work out a new contract or they can trade him. A favorable position for the front office to be in with Atogwe, but one that might lead to some bad blood. His injury will likely figure into the equation for what course the Rams pursue with their ballhawking free safety as teams weigh that in any trade offers and the Rams consider that when deciding at what RFA level they'll tender him an offer. Remember though, even the highest RFA level last season paid a player just $2.35 million.

When you think about the very limited possibilities via free agency this season, it makes  the draft even more important for teams, especially rebuilding teams like the Rams. And in this year when he who has the most draft picks wins, trades to secure even more draft picks must be considered.

Should be one hell of an offseason.