SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Manny Lawson said it without a trace of resentment. But he said it nonetheless.
"I would like a new contract," he proclaimed.
The 49ers linebacker held court in the locker room even before his first practice of the season. Reporters surrounded Lawson when he showed up at the mandatory minicamp after skipping all of the voluntary organized team activities as a way of sending his message.
Lawson, a first-round pick in 2006, is coming off a career-best season. He led the 49ers with 6.5 sacks and also forced four fumbles. Only the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware and the Lions' Julian Peterson forced more fumbles, with five each.
Lawson registered sacks in three consecutive games, becoming the first 49ers player to do so since defensive end Andre Carter in 2002.
While Lawson's sack totals are impressive, they're not exactly monstrous. He reasons that he makes up for whatever shortcomings he might have as a pass-rusher by being an all-around player. When healthy, Lawson is terrific in coverage.
"You have to be a well-rounded person in this league," Lawson said. "Whatever the team needs me to do, that's what I'm going to do."
Asked if his sack totals might take a jump up in 2010, Lawson said: "I would like that. But before that, you have to be a team player. So if we become better as a defense overall, then as far as me having more sacks, as long as we keep doing what we're doing as a defense, then I'm good with that."
Lawson is scheduled to make $630,000 in this the final season of the five-year deal he signed as a rookie. After watching other 49ers nail down extensions for other players, including linebacker Patrick Willis and left tackle Joe Staley -- whose contracts weren't close to expiring -- Lawson is eager to jump into the conversation.
He said he does not begrudge his teammates for getting their deals first.
"Kudos to them," Lawson said. "I'm about everybody getting what they deserve."
In Lawson's absence, Ahmad Brooks took the reps as the pass-rushing outside linebacker and made a strong impression. Brooks, like Lawson, is coming off a career best season (6.0 sacks and four forced fumbles). Lawson said he saw no risk in letting Brooks get a head start in the competition for playing time. He was working out with at Fisher Sports in Arizona and said he feels great about his fitness levels. He said he is stronger than last year "by far."
Though his contract status hangs in the air, the former North Carolina State standout said was ready for duty upon reporting -- even if it was a little late.
"I kind of feel like it's brand new," Lawson said. "More excitement. Now I'm more excited. Instead of being here all year-round, you know? But when you step away and come back, it's almost like you're on a new team. It's almost like I just got drafted here again."
With the offseason for the Seattle Seahawks recently coming to a close with a two-day minicamp cut a day short, veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said he's much more comfortable in new offensive coordinator's Jeremy Bates' version of the West Coast offense.
"We've probably logged more quarterback meeting hours than any quarterback group in the history of football, but it's been fun," joked Hasselbeck. "I think we've kind of mastered the verbiage and mastered the language that is this offense. I think the next step will be to figure out what we're most comfortable with and going to those things.
"There is a lot of freedom in this offense for the quarterbacks so it's just a matter of finding your guys, your receivers you're comfortable with, your tight ends and figuring out what routes you're best at."
Hasselbeck is responsible for learning his third different offense in three years. For most of his tenure in Seattle, the 34-year-old quarterback operated under the tutelage of quarterback guru Mike Holmgren, who preached tempo and playing fast.
But now Hasselbeck is dealing with a new offense that focuses on a lot of motion and formation shifts in order to make the defense adjust. However, even with the change of focus, Hasselbeck said he wants to get to the point where he is playing at a fast pace as he did during the Holmgren years.
"I would love to get there with that but it's probably secondary to some other things," Hasselbeck said. "Whereas that used to be priority number one and then there was some other stuff.
"I think it's still a priority but as you've probably seen, we do a lot more shifting and motions and that kind of thing too. It doesn't matter, whatever they want to do is what we'll do and we'll make it work."
Despite the moves the team made to bring in quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to push for the starting job, Hasselbeck has been the clear leader during offseason workouts, and Whitehurst probably has seen more competition for the No. 2 spot from third stringer J.P. Losman.
Part of the reason for that is Hasselbeck already has some familiarity with the West Coast offense from his time working with Holmgren and last year's offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, so he already has an understanding of the formations and where guys will be on the field.
Overall, Hasselbeck said the team's offseason led by head coach Pete Carroll has been a good learning experience. He believes that Carroll has set a good tone, and although the team might not be ready yet to make another Super Bowl run, they have enough talent to recapture the NFC West Division crown.
"There's no doubt in my mind that where we are right now, we're a better team, we're a more talented team than when we finished the season," Hasselbeck said. "That's a great thing. We worked hard. We set some goals for the offseason; I think we accomplished those goals.
"Pete (Carroll) came in and asked us to do a couple things and he said, 'The most important thing is that you guys got to be able to practice the way I want you to practice and at the level that I want you to practice if you want to compete at the highest level,' and that's what we said we wanted to do. It's a step in the right direction, it's a start and this is just the first part of it."
"I broke my ribs in the preseason and I played with three broken ribs for, like, the first six games and never said anything," he said. "Then my groin and my stomach started bothering me, and I didn't know what it was. I never thought it was to the extent it was."
Houshmandzadeh said he thought his injury was healing after the season. However, he continued to feel pain and finally had sports hernia surgery in April. The 10-year veteran said it was the first surgery he ever had.
"Yeah, we really do," Carroll said. "We think he's in great shape for this time. He's ahead of schedule right now."
Seattle engineered a draft-day trade with the New York Jets to secure Washington's services, giving up a fifth-round choice. Washington suffered a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in his right leg during a Jets game at Oakland in October.
Some wondered whether Washington -- who still has a metal rod in the injured leg -- would return to the Pro Bowl level he displayed in 2008 when he made the team.
Washington has looked quick in limited action running routes and taking hand off in individual drills. Like Carroll, Washington believes he will be ready for training camp.
"My goal for this next month before training camp starts is to continue my training and get better, and when training camp comes around I'll be ready to roll," Washington said.
"I'll be out full speed," Branch said. "I'll be out for the first day."
Branch went on to say that he had no issues with his knee last year after he went through a similar procedure during the offseason, and doesn't expect to have any lingering issues this year. Branch has yet to play a full, 16-game season in his four-year tenure with Seattle.
"Last year we did the same thing, we had a cleanout," Branch said about his most recent surgery. "This year it was probably ... lighter; it wasn't as intense as last year's surgery."
Branch knows he has some catching up to do. He worked through three days on the field before surgery so he could learn offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates' new scheme. But Branch said he still has to learn some of the situational plays such as the two-minute offense and red zone.
But overall, Branch said he thinks the new offense fits his skills.
"It's just all about where JB (Bates) wants to put us," Branch said. "We've got a lot of flexibility with what he's doing with all the guys on the team, moving me, Deon (Butler), T.J. (Houshmandzadeh), Obo (Ben Obomanu) and (Golden) Tate. I mean he has a lot of guys to work with.
"So I think he has the hard job. I think the easy part is for us to go out there and make the plays."
ST. LOUIS RAMS
The prevailing notion away from Rams Park throughout the three-and-a-half month tap dance played between the Rams and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe was that there was little chance Atogwe would play for the Rams again. It was believed that Atogwe was bitter at the Rams for tendering him at $1.226 million when the league year began in March, even though the Rams insisted all along that Atogwe was well aware of the reasoning behind their approach.
There were also those that thought Atogwe wanted no part of the Rams, that he was tired of the losing he has experienced the last three seasons. Well, all of those notions were put to rest June 23 when, on his 29th birthday, Atogwe re-upped with the Rams for five years, and went out of his way to send kudos to the organization for the way it handled things.
Said Atogwe, "I believe we had a very cordial and respectful negotiation process. One thing that I'll definitely commend the Rams on is that they were very professional. At no time were they disrespectful or condescending or (was there) any bad blood in any way. They conducted themselves in a very professional manner, as did we. I think that's what made coming back to the Rams, knowing that these are the types of individuals who lead in the organization, made it all the better. Knowing that these are classy guys running the organization, that meant a lot to me in the entire process and it really spoke volumes of where they're headed. That spoke to me."
Of course, Atogwe experienced firsthand what has been a slow offseason for many players throughout the NFL. Asked what the biggest eye-opener was during talks with other team, Atogwe said, "To me it was really the state of the league as I viewed it from the perspective of how some of my peers were also being treated or what they were experiencing. Just the state of the league and the impending lockout that's pretty much upon us come 2011, because I believe that shaped a lot of negotiations, a lot of interest in this 2010 free agency period.
"It's real, and I believe a lot of players now who are looking to get extensions, looking to do long-term deals are actually feeling the brunt, feeling the impact of that coming. To me, if anything, that was the most eye-opening information that I received."
Still, there have been players that secured large contracts, including safety Antrel Rolle, who received $15 million guaranteed from the Giants on a five-year deal that averaged $7.4 million.
There had been various reports since Atogwe became a free agent on June 2 that he was seeking a contract worth $7 million a year. That stopped talks before they really began, and while not speaking to specific terms, Atogwe acknowledged that when he was asked how serious talks were with other teams.
He said, "I would say most of the negotiations were always casual because from the onset when you talk to a team, if we're not mutually at the same place, there's no need to explore any further or delve any deeper. Throughout the process, we had continuous talks with St. Louis, and they were one of the teams that I always knew mutually where we were at. That spoke a lot. That said a lot, just having played for them for five years. That just gave me a greater sense of commitment to them."
In other words, if the money is relatively the same, it makes no sense to leave.
"This is where I'm supposed to be," he said. "This is where my work is still to be done. St. Louis has been my home these last five years and my time here was not finished. My purpose of being in St. Louis was not completed, and coming back and being with my teammates meant a lot to me. I've got a lot of good friends on this team and our work together wasn't done, so I'm excited to come back and rejoin them and all the work they've done this offseason to continue to turn this around and head in the right direction to a Super Bowl."
Most important, reflected in Atogwe's comments about the Rams, is that the team never reacted by threatening to take offers off the table. The Rams stuck to their guns, and their patience and strategy paid off. However, Rams executive vice president of football operations/chief operating officer Kevin Demoff said this deal was about much more than that.
"This deal wouldn't have happened without how much he valued his teammates and cares about the community," Demoff said. "I always believed that would be a factor in our favor that no other club had. We knew how much he is committed to turning around this club and wants to be part of the veteran group that changes our fortunes."
Demoff acknowledged that Atogwe's unique situation contributed to the length of the negotiations especially when it came to assessing value. He was franchised last year at $6.342 million, but the change in free agency rules this year resulted in him being a restricted free agent.
"That, and the potential tender this year, created an artificial value, so we had to get to the point where we weren't constrained by franchise tags or restricted tenders," Demoff said. "Those things made it more difficult from the beginning than it had to be."
Still, there were nervous moments when Atogwe hit the open market June 2 -- for both sides.
"Many emotions flowed throughout this entire process," Atogwe said. "Sometimes I felt like I was coming back, sometimes I wasn't. Through the passage of time and through patience and just prayer, the best decision came to me and the right decision came to me."
Said Demoff, "You're always nervous when a player hits free agency because it only takes one team to make a big offer. But I was always optimistic because I felt we had a good dialogue all along with OJ and his agent, and I knew he cared deeply about Steve (Spagnuolo) and Billy (Devaney)."
For Atogwe's part, after experiencing the atmosphere he described around the league, he was gratified by the fact that the Rams kept talking and kept their offers on the table.
Atogwe said, "We were able to structure the deal in a way that it would benefit both of us. Like I said, the way we conducted business the entire time was always respectful and was always professional. The contract reflects that nature and I'm pleased with the deal, very pleased with it, and I know they are as well. Like I said, my whole focus was to make sure I took care of the business side and put me back on the field where I was comfortable to play for whatever dollar amount that we came up with. Now that I've signed it, I am comfortable with it and ready to get back on the field."
Throughout his comments, it was apparent Atogwe was well-versed in the talks and knew what was going on all the time.
"I believe that's the way it should be handled," he said. "You have to take an active role in your football career. I have a fabulous agent, Ken Landphere. He's worked tirelessly through the entire process to keep me informed and keep me up to date as well as doing his due diligence as far as creating an opportunity for me to sign this contract with the Rams and coming up with a, I'd say not an unusual, but a special way to get the contract done. But it was on me to stay informed and make sure that I knew what was going on, just so I'd feel comfortable at the end of the day on what I was putting pen to paper."
He concluded, "I'm at peace. I'm blessed that this part of this side of football has been decided and finalized so now I can get back to doing what I truly love to do, and that's playing. I'm glad to be back with the Rams. I'm excited for the season coming up and to be back with my teammates."
Obviously, so are the Rams. Said Spagnuolo, "We are excited to have OJ back in the fold. We were always hopeful for this result. We look forward to having his leadership, character and talent back on our defense."
While not admitting to the hernia surgery, he said, "I had some other complications that needed to get corrected and through the offseason I was able to restore health and become whole. Going forward, I think I'm in the best shape that I can be to play this upcoming season."
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