This year is being billed as a weak draft class for safeties, and with the Collective Bargaining Agreement still in flux, teams might not have much of an opportunity to upgrade via free agency either.
There is a third way though, in the shape of players that are cut or released by their respective teams and become immediately available to sign elsewhere. One such player is O.J. Atogwe, formerly of the St Louis Rams, cut to avoid the $8 million the Rams were due to pay him.
Atogwe wasn’t the only big-name safety to get cut last week, with the Colts’ Bob Sanders and Texans’ Eugene Wilson other notable casualties. Sanders, though, has been on the field so little over the past few seasons that we didn’t really feel we could make any concrete conclusions beyond what we all already know. And Wilson was at the bottom of our safety rankings in 2010, so he’s no prize either.
Atogwe is a different story, though — he played more than a thousand snaps last season, and he provides a legitimate option for teams looking to upgrade their secondary.
He brings the blitz
NFL defenses have become more creative, and more aggressive, in a bid to try and counter the wide-open passing attacks that every team seems to employ these days.
In these schemes safeties have to become more than just a last line of defense. No longer is the safety only a deep cover guy, tasked with preventing long touchdowns. Now they are wild-card players who can line up close to the line of scrimmage or deep in the secondary, and can provide an extra pass-rusher that needs to be accounted for.
Atogwe has proven to be an effective force on the blitz, especially in 2010 where he not only had three sacks, but knocked the QB down a further six times and added another seven pressures. He was also able to bat down three balls when making a nuisance of himself at or behind the line of scrimmage. Teams needed to locate and account for Atogwe last season, and if they didn’t, he made plays.
Not a liability vs. the run, but not a strength either
There aren’t many more active players than Atogwe, and he usually racks up his fair share of tackles. While 24 different safeties made more tackles in 2010 than he did, not one of them missed fewer tackles (Atogwe missed just 5). Of those 24 players, 15 missed double or more the number of tackles.
That rings true for Atogwe over his past three seasons of play – he doesn’t miss many tackles – but there is more to playing the run than simply being a sure tackler, and only one of his past three seasons have earned him a positive grade for his play against the run (+1.7 grade in 2010). So what earns him the negative grades? It’s a combination of things. Between taking poor angles, struggling to get off blocks at times and failing to force the run towards his help, Atogwe doesn’t always grade as well as his raw numbers suggest he should. That being said, his best season was his most recent, and his play was far from a problem.
A gamblin’ man in coverage
One thing that always leaps out when watching the Rams is the exceptional ball-skills Atogwe has. You’ll see him make interceptions that any receiver would be proud of, but he doesn’t make as many plays in coverage as you might expect from a ball-hawk type safety. Over the past three seasons he has only accumulated ten interceptions and an additional three passes defensed. To put that into some context: In just ten games this season, Ed Reed hauled in eight interceptions and added a further eight passes defensed.
When the ball is thrown at a receiver that Atogwe is covering, he fares very well. He has only allowed three touchdowns in the past three seasons. He didn’t allow a reception over 31 yards in 2010, and there were seven games in which he didn’t allow a pass over ten yards to be complete. Much like the run game though, not all coverage is man to man, and sometimes plays are made on other defensive backs because Atogwe didn’t fully execute his assignment. He has a tendency to gamble a bit, trying to read the quarterback’s eyes and often finds himself out of position or late in helping out a cornerback, which hurts his coverage grade.
So what’s the bottom line? Is Atogwe worth chasing for teams that might not have many other opportunities to upgrade at safety? Short answer is absolutely. He is a well-balanced player. He has the skills to be effective on the blitz, to help out against the run, and to make plays in coverage. He is a player that offenses need to be aware of, but he can be inconsistent, and he’s not perfect.
There is a good chance Atogwe ends up back in St Louis. They didn’t part on poor terms, it was a case of economics with the Rams looking to avoid paying an $8m roster bonus. Neither side is likely against a return if they can work out a long-term deal, but the Rams could face competition for his signature.
The Houston Texans had the league’s worst secondary last season, and given the youth they have back there would be as likely as anybody to look to veteran leadership rather than to the draft. Atogwe would provide an immediate and significant upgrade to the Texans and ideally a veteran presence that would help their younger players develop.
Dallas is a team that has never shied away from making necessary moves, and they’re still in need of an impact player at safety. The Cowboys D isn’t far from being an extremely destructive unit, and they generate the kind of pressure up front that would play to Atogwe’s strengths, forcing quarterbacks to put the ball in the air early and limiting the time they have to look off the safety.
Both Texas teams would be wise to check out Atogwe, but there are several other teams that need significant upgrades at safety that could prove serious competition for St Louis when it comes to securing his signature