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Today Is Decision Day for OJ Atogwe and the St. Louis Rams

Ron Clements@Ron_ClementsCorrespondent IJune 1, 2010

ST. LOUIS - NOVEMBER 22: Oshiomogho Atogwe #21 of the St. Louis Rams carries the ball against the Arizona Cardinals at the Edward Jones Dome on November 22, 2009 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals beat the Rams 21-13. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

While there’s no question that Steven Jackson is the best offensive player the St. Louis Rams have, an argument can be made that Oshiomogho Atogwe is the team’s best defensive player.

Atogwe has been referred to as a “turnover machine” by Brad Biggs of the National Football Post. He’s got 19 interceptions and 14 forced fumbles in his six-year career. He knocked three balls loose with two interceptions and a sack last year in 12 games, missing the last four with a shoulder injury.

But the Rams are in danger of losing the former Stanford safety to free agency if an agreement cannot be made.

After being tabbed with the franchise tag last year and signing a one-year deal worth $6.342 million, Atogwe was a restricted free agent for the uncapped 2010 season. The Rams made the decision in March to tender him at the lowest level of $1.226 million. The lower tender meant the Rams retained right of first refusal, but there would have been no draft-choice compensation had Atogwe received an offer from another team prior to the April 15 deadline.

He didn’t and now we’re at June 1, and the Rams have until 11 tonight to sign him to a one-year contract worth 110 percent of his 2009 salary, or $6.976 million. If they don’t Atogwe becomes an unrestricted free agent, and he’s got plenty of suitors in the Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers. The Rams will continue negotiations with Atogwe, even if the 11 p.m. deadline isn’t met.

San Francisco would make a lot of sense for the 29-year-old Canadian native who played his college ball at nearby Stanford.

Both the Rams and Atogwe’s agent, Ken Landphere, have been trying to hammer out a long-term deal and talks continued through Memorial Day weekend. Landphere wants top money for his client while the Rams are offering a more modest salary, but still a raise over his 2009 salary.

What’s he worth? Well, compared to other top safeties in the league, Landphere’s demands don’t seem to be unreasonable.

Since he’s been in the league, Atogwe has more career interceptions than Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu and has forced more fumbles than Polamalu, New Orleans’ Darren Sharper and Baltimore’s Ed Reed combined. Still Atogwe’s base salary in 2009 was higher than Polamalu’s, Reed’s or Sharper, who had a base salary of $1.65 million in a deal riddled with incentives.

In March the New York Giants made former Arizona safety Antrell Rolle the highest-paid safety in NFL history with a five-year deal worth $37 million, including $15 million guaranteed. It seems that Landphere wants a deal comparable to Rolle, who like Atogwe, is a six-year veteran. Rolle has 12 career interceptions to Atogwe’s 19 and three forced fumbles to Atogwe’s 14.

Atogwe’s numbers are better than most safeties in the NFL, but how much will his offseason shoulder surgery impact his future? Based on past performance, Atogwe deserves top money.

The poker game continues and the clock keeps ticking. At midnight (Eastern because midnight works better for this analogy than 11 p.m.) Cinderella’s carriage turns back into a pumpkin and the Rams’ best defensive player hits the open market.

This column can also be found at The Alton Telegraph.

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