Monday, March 16, 2009

Rams secondary takes shape

In mid-February, the Rams' secondary was in a state of flux. Strong safety
Corey Chavous had been released, cornerback Fakhir Brown had been removed from
the team's plans, and free safety Oshiomogho "O.J." Atogwe and cornerback Ron
Bartell were about to become free agents.

Less than a month and more than $50 million later, the new regime at Rams Park
has solidified most of its defensive backfield:

Feb. 19 — Atogwe, 27, is assigned the team's franchise tag, assuring his
presence in 2009 and earning him a one-year salary of $6.34 million.

March 2 — After a visit to New Orleans and a contract offer from the Saints,
Bartell, 27, re-signs with the Rams. His four-year deal could max out at $28

March 10 — Strong safety James Butler, 27, a free agent who spent the previous
four seasons with the New York Giants, signs for four years and, if certain
incentives are met, about $17 million.

"It's very exciting," Butler said. "O.J.'s been having a lot of interceptions
the past two years, and Ron Bartell's arrow is definitely going up."

With a laugh, Butler added, "We've got a lot of young players, and they're fast
— I might be the slowest one out of the bunch. I might have to start working on
my 40s."

Atogwe, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound third-round draft pick in 2005, is a three-year
starter who has developed into one of the NFL's top ball-hawking defenders. He
led the NFC with eight interceptions two years ago and picked off five more
passes in 2008. He also finished second on the team in tackles this past
season, with 109.

Bartell, a 6-1, 209-pounder drafted in the second round in 2005, cobbled
together a breakout season in '08. After shuttling between safety and
cornerback his first three seasons, Bartell became a full-time starter. He was
the team's best defender in coverage, compiling one of the league's best "burn"
rates (percentage of passes completed against him), and his three interceptions
were second to Atogwe.

Butler, a 6-3, 215-pound Georgia Tech product, wasn't drafted after his senior
season in 2005, which shocked the two-time all-Atlantic Coast Conference

"It was very tough. I was like, 'Man, these guys aren't better than me,'"
Butler said. "But I think every player has things he has to go through, and I
went through that. You just have to roll with the punches."

The snub amped up his determination to prove the skeptics wrong, Butler

"Every player has a motivation. ... that was my motivation," he said.

Signed by the Giants as a free agent, Butler kept his initial goals simple.

"My first year with the Giants, it was just, 'make the team ... keep
grinding,'" he said.

He filled a reserve role his first two years, then earned a starting job in
2007. Coincidentally or not, that was the same year Giants coach Tom Coughlin
hired Steve Spagnuolo as his defensive coordinator.

"Coach Spags came over with a different mind-set, an aggressive mind-set, and
we bought into it," Butler said. The effect was immediate.

The Giants' defense improved from 25th in the 32-team NFL in 2006 to seventh in
'07 under the future Rams head coach. Spagnuolo's scheme vs. New England's
record-setting offense was widely hailed as a primary factor in the Giants'
stunning 17-14 Super Bowl triumph.

Butler had a team-high 10 tackles vs. the Pats, but he played down his

"It really wasn't about the personal things," he said. "Just to win as a team,
and the way we won, that was the biggest thing."

Spagnuolo's defense moved up to No. 5 this past season, and his stock as a
potential head coach soared. The Rams hired him Jan. 17. And when Spagnuolo
called at the start of the free agency period, Butler listened.

"Coach Spags gave me my first opportunity to start in the league, and he helped
my career grow. I wanted to stay with him," Butler said. "I was talking to
other teams, but in the back of my mind, I was going to be here."

As for the fourth member of the secondary ...

"Wide open," Spagnuolo said. "There's going to be a lot of competition in (the
three) minicamps, and we'll just let guys compete and see who surfaces."

Tye Hill, the Rams' first-round draft pick in 2006, probably is the top
candidate among the incumbent corners. He started 10 games as a rookie but has
played in just nine games over the past two seasons because of injuries.

"I don't think Tye has lost his swagger," said Butler, who co-owns a Golden
Corral restaurant in Centerville, Ga., with Hill. "He's definitely motivated to
be one of the best corners in the league this year, and he's been working hard
this offseason. Tye Hill will be a great player this year."

Other cornerbacks under contract are Eric Bassey, Quincy Butler, Justin King
and Jonathan Wade. Also, Jason Craft, a free-agent acquisition last year, could
be brought back.

Butler "was a real key piece of the puzzle" in the secondary, Spagnuolo said.
"He's going to be kind of the glue that brings these guys together."

No comments: