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Possibility of Atogwe becoming available prompts many questions

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Chicago, Dallas, Minnesota or some other team in need of safety help could soon get it in the form of O.J. Atogwe. The Rams' restricted free-agent is caught in an interesting time capsule that could end up with St. Louis losing a player it franchised last season with no compensation.

Although St. Louis placed nothing more than the low right-of-first-refusal tender on Atogwe at the outset of free agency, teams were scared off from extending an offer sheet because they felt any deal they negotiated with Atogwe would be matched by the Rams. Atogwe never signed his restricted free-agent tender -- an offer that would have dropped his $6.3 million 2009 salary to about $5 million -- and from now until June 1, the Rams have exclusive negotiating rights with Atogwe.

The Rams do have another measure to keep Atogwe off the market besides signing him to a long-term deal. They could place a $6.9 million restricted free-agent tender for a one-year on him by June 1. This is a means to retain a player that they like and keep him from leaving without any form of compensation.

If a deal can't be worked out between now and then, Atogwe is free to walk and the Rams won't get anything in return. The Rams could trade him but he has to sign his tender and the only way he will sign a tender is if a new deal can be worked out before him being moved. That doesn't seem likely at this point, but there is time. As of now, there has been little communication between Rams management and Atogwe regarding a new contract.

That's likely to change over the next three weeks.

Clearly, one of the reasons St. Louis didn't franchise Atogwe again, offer him a raise over last season's deal or even place a first-round compensation tender on him is it doesn't want to pay him the type of money he earned last season. So any discussions of a long-term deal will probably average less, maybe a lot less, than the salary he earned in '09.

Atogwe doesn't have to accept any offer the Rams make because there could be more for him on the open market. Then again, there might not be. A lot of teams have spent what they're going to spend, and suitors -- who haven't surfaced yet -- might be limited. That could leave Atogwe in the position of taking what the Rams offer or leaving regardless because he's not pleased with how things transpired.

Atogwe is coming off a torn labrum in his shoulder, but he should be fully healthy by the start of next season, so medical concerns aren't believed to be a big issue.

The guess here is that St. Louis and Atogwe will try to get something done over the next few weeks. Atogwe is one of the few good players (19 picks and 317 tackles in five seasons) on the roster, especially on defense, and this is a franchise that can't let starting players leave for nothing.

49ers taking care of their own

San Francisco, which has struggled for years to regain some semblance of the model franchise it once was, now seems to be following the model of roster building used by successful teams such as Indianapolis, Philadelphia and New England: Draft well and re-sign your nucleus. The 49ers have been engaged in contract extension talks with fourth-year Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis for weeks, a source with knowledge of the situation confirmed. The 49ers signed linebacker Patrick Willis to a five-year, $50 million extension last week, and now it looks like they will lock up another promising player before the season starts.

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Although it has been reported that Davis is looking to receive $40 million over five years with roughly $25 million guaranteed, I've been told that a lot of different numbers have been tossed around and that no figures are close to being set. I've also been told that nothing is imminent, but talks are progressing. In other words, Davis will be taken care of, happy and set to improve on his career-high 78-catch, 13-touchdown 2009 season.

By showing they are willing to sign these young players, the 49ers are letting the guys in the locker room know that if they perform, they'll be rewarded. That's building a work environment that could make players want to deliver on the potential they're being paid to develop. It takes a lot more than paying good players to win ball games, but it also shows that San Francisco is recognizing, ahead of time, what it wants to build around and making sure those players know they are wanted.

It's amazing how much good will that builds. All you have to do is look at the franchises that routinely struggle and see that acquiring good talent, developing that talent and retaining that talent are things that usually don't happen. San Francisco might be getting it right.

Berry's lofty goal

Kansas City safety Eric Berry is considered to be one of this year's top rookies -- he was selected No. 5 overall -- and early returns haven't done anything to throw a wet blanket on the optimism. Part of the reason is that Berry has some in-house motivation: His position coach, Emmitt Thomas.

Thomas, who was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008 by the Seniors Committee, is the Chiefs' all-time interceptions leader with 58 over 13 seasons. The former cornerback and long-time assistant coach and defensive coordinator has let Berry know that, too. Berry, in turn, has let Thomas know that, out of respect, he won't try to shatter the mark and that his goal is simply to get 60 picks.

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