The Rams’ front seven has been the subject of much ballyhoo this offseason, including a piece from our own Sam Tramel earlier this week. With the addition of first-round pick Aaron Donald to an already stacked defensive line headlined by PFWA defensive player of the year Robert Quinn, the Rams’ defensive line would be a disappointment if it didn’t constantly disrupt quarterbacks and finish at least in the top five of total team sacks in 2014.
Coming off a promising rookie season, outside linebacker Alec Ogletree seems to have all the tools necessary to become a really good player. His counterpart on the other side, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, should bounce back from a subpar season now that he’s paired with his former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and won’t begin the season with a four-game suspension.
However, there is one player who is the key to making everything click. That man is middle linebacker James Laurinaitis.
Laurinaitis, or JL55 as he’s commonly known, often gets a free pass here in St. Louis. I think that starts with the fact that JL55 was the only draft pick of the 2009 Rams draft class that turned out to be worth a damn. The fans were desperate to cling on to any sign of hope during those often hopeless years, so when JL55 immediately started his career as the Rams’ middle linebacker and playcaller, that was a positive sign. Not many other Rams rookies around that time managed to contribute whatsoever.
Laurinaitis played relatively well in his first three seasons – relative, that is, to all the dreadful teammates surrounding him. He also managed to be on the field for almost every single snap possible*.
*Laurinaitis has only missed 13 snaps in his five-year career so far.
Therefore, a lot of people – possibly general manager Les Snead included – mistook Laurinaitis’ durability and decent play relative to his subpar team as an indication that JL55 might grow into a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
The problem is he never showed that much potential in his first three seasons and certainly hasn’t done so in his last two since he received a contract extension in training camp 2012 (the extension officially kicked in last season), which pays him like he should be a Pro Bowler. Laurinaitis’s cap number last season was $12.4 million, and he’s on the hook this season for a $10.4 million cap number this season.
Take a look at this infographic, and tell me you wouldn’t rather have the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner for 10 percent of Laurinaitis’s cost ($1.37 million cap number this season) or the 49ers’ Patrick Willis for about $10 million annually.