By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Rams make it clear they hope to re-sign O.J. Atogwe and Ron Bartell.
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The college draft in April, plus the trade/free agency period that begins in March, are cornerstones of offseason roster shaping.
But an often-overlooked part of the formula for any team is deciding which of its own pending free agents it wants back.
"That's going to dictate the direction you go in free agency," said Billy Devaney, the Rams' executive vice president of player personnel. "It may change your draft strategy. If you lose a bunch of guys at one position, that really impacts a lot of your draft strategy."
For the Rams, that's particularly true in the secondary, where starters Oshiomogho Atogwe, Ron Bartell and Fakhir Brown, plus nickel back Jason Craft, are scheduled for unrestricted free agency. The Rams make no secret of the fact that they are targeting Bartell and Atogwe as priorities among their list of prospective free agents.
"I really like both of those kids, on and off the field," Devaney said. "I think they're winners. I think they're good for your program. Obviously, they're important guys to us to try to keep. We're going to do everything possible to keep both of them."
To a large degree, the Rams haven't done a great job of developing young talent in recent years. But that's not the case with Bartell, 26, and Atogwe, 27. A raw corner-safety 'tweener when selected out of Howard in the second round of the 2005 draft, Bartell has developed into a solid cover corner.
According to STATS LLC, Bartell has been targeted by opposing quarterbacks on 65 passes so far this season. Only 49.2 percent of those passes (32) have been completed against him, for 381 yards and no touchdowns. According to Rams statistics, he has recorded 13 pass breakups, a career high.
In terms of passes completed against him — or what STATS LLC calls the "burn rate" — Bartell is doing much better than several more well-known cornerbacks. Here is the completion percentage against some notable corners so far this season:
Dre Bly, Denver, 66.7 percent; Terence Newman, Dallas (65.9); Charles Tillman, Chicago (65.6); Lito Sheppard, Philadelphia (65.1); Fred Smoot, Washington (64.5); and Marcus Trufant, Seattle (63.5).
Bartell has improved dramatically from last season, when his burn rate was 67.1 percent — he allowed 51 completions in 76 attempts.
Bartell wants to return to St. Louis, even with uncertainties ranging from the front office to a possible sale of the team, to a potential new head coach in 2009.
"I definitely wouldn't want to leave here with the way it's been the past couple years," Bartell said. "I feel like I have some unfinished business. I'm definitely open to coming back."
"I feel like I'm getting better every year, so just to have the opportunity to stay here and keep improving would be great. But you know, things happen. They have to make the best decision for them, and I have to make the best decision for me."
Bartell has been in the league long enough, and around Rams Park long enough, to know that anything can happen when it comes to contracts. After all, Isaac Bruce was cut — twice — by the Rams.
"We've had guys here in the past that I thought should've stayed, or wanted to stay, and for whatever reasons they ended up leaving," Bartell said. "So you never know what'll happen."
Atogwe, meanwhile, was much more guarded in discussing his pending free agency.
"I live day to day," Atogwe said. "I can't really see what's going to happen in the future. I just know I want to try to finish this season out as strong as possible, continue to work hard and play well, and give God all the glory. That's where my focus is at."
Atogwe missed all of the preseason and almost all of training camp with a hamstring injury. After a slow start in the regular season, he has returned to his ball-hawking and turnover-forcing ways. Entering Sunday's game at Arizona, Atogwe has four interceptions and seven forced fumbles this season. In each of the past three games, Atogwe has forced a fumble that was recovered by St. Louis.
Including nine players currently on the injured reserve list, the Rams have 62 players under contract. (That figure does not include players on the practice squad.)
Of that 62, 17 are scheduled for unrestricted free agency and three are scheduled for restricted free agency. Unrestricted free agents can sign with any team, no strings attached, at the start of the free agency period in March. In the case of restricted free agents, a team can match any offers from outside teams.
At this time of year, the "home team" advantage is that teams can re-sign their own pending free agents right now. Although no negotiations have started, the Rams have begun notifying some of their free agents that they want to re-sign them.
Devaney wasn't very expansive on the topic. "All I can say about that is the process has started ... we've begun the process," he said.
While Devaney is coordinating the overall free agency effort, he does not handle negotiations. With team president of football operations Jay Zygmunt apparently on the way out, who will handle contract talks?
Devaney declined comment.
Team sources told the Post-Dispatch that exactly who will handle negotiations is "to be determined" but added that it would not be an impediment to getting players re-signed.