Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Feature Article- James Laurinaitis: A Pick For the Ages

The Rams Made A Black Hole On Defense

Coming off their 2001 Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots, the St. Louis Rams had a difficult roster decision to make.

Middle linebacker London Fletcher was a special player for the Rams. As an undrafted player, Fletcher was able to help solidify the defense and protect them from runs up the middle.
Letting linebacker London Fletcher leave haunted the Rams for years.

He also put up admirable stats during his four year tenure in St. Louis (13 sacks, six interceptions, four forced fumbles).

Despite the undeniable success of the young athlete, the Rams mistakingly thought he was a replaceable asset, and they allowed him to leave the team to sign with the Buffalo Bills.

They likely assumed that they could stick any semi-talented linebacker in Fletcher's place and receive similar results given the surrounding talent on defense, and it would save the team the cost of offering Fletcher a long term contract in the process.

It was an error in judgement that resulted in a long term void, and it left a gapping hole up the middle for years to come.

But they certainly made attempts to correct the mistake in the meantime.

In 2002 they invested a first-round pick in Robert Thomas, but he was undersized and ineffective. They also signed Chris Claiborne away from the Minnesota Vikings in 2005 as a free-agent, but he lacked the work ethic required to succeed in the NFL.

Their efforts to replace Fletcher were futile.

The one decent attempt to fill Fletcher's shoes came when the Rams signed Will Witherspoon prior to the 2006 season.

Witherspoon was a capable linebacker for the Carolina Panthers prior to coming to St. Louis.

He was viewed as a young player with his best years still ahead of him. He was 24 years old when the Rams signed him, and he was thought to have possible pro-bowl potential in his future.

Despite the hype surrounding Witherspoon, he was nothing more than an adequate player for the Rams.

It was not entirely his fault, as he's physically built as an outside linebacker, but was forced to play in the middle as part of an attempt to finally solidify the position for the team.

But the Rams had to do a better job at replacing Fletcher.

A Pick of Shock and Awe

During the 2008 season, Rams' head coach Scott Linehan was fired and replaced with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.

The Rams chose not to retain Haslett as their head coach for 2009, and instead hired Steve Spagnuolo of the New York Giants.
The hiring of Steve Spagnuolo brought a defensive
mindset that the St. Louis Rams required. 

The defensive guru, Spagnuolo, was known for masterminding a Giants defense that was able to defeat the vigorous New England Patriots offense led by Tom Brady during Super Bowl 42.

It was an offense that had a perfect 16-0 season, but they could not handle the pass rush created by Spagnuolo's defense, as they were able to sack Brady five times during the game.

He was precisely the defensive mind that the Rams required if they wanted to revamp their team.

With a defensive minded coach, every Rams fan was wondering what kind of defensive weapons he would add to the roster, and they assumed that he would eventually address the hole at middle linebacker.

The end of the linebacker drought seemed near during the 2009 draft.

As the first round of the draft began to wind down, fans could feel the solution to the problem creep up almost within reaching distance, as the Rams owned the third pick of the second round.

But the solution might not have been who the fans were expecting.

James Laurinaitis was a hard working lunch pale type of player for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

His stats in college- 376 tackles, 13 sacks and nine interceptions in three years as a starter- made him a popular guy around Columbus, Ohio, but he already had some name recognition due to being the son of the famous wrestler- Road Warrior Animal, also known as Joe Laurinaitis.

But James Laurinaitis didn't need a famous wrestler father to become a hit amongst NFL scouts and draft analysts, as they were frequently comparing him to All-Pro linebackers Brian Urlacher and Keith Brooking.

However, some felt that he was slightly lacking in strength, and they also felt that he didn't possess any game changing playmaking ability.

And besides, there was another middle linebacker from that draft class stealing the attention away.

Rey Maualuga was the centerpiece for a group of juggernaut USC Trojan linebackers- a group that also featured Clay Matthews (Super Bowl winner) and Brian Cushing (2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year).

Maualuga was known as a defender capable of delivering devastating blows to the ball carrier, and analysts had him rated as a lock for the top 20 picks of the draft.

So when the 2009 draft was inching towards the Ram's second round pick and Maualuga was still on the board , he became the primary focus for Rams fans watching the process from coast-to-coast.
USC linebacker Rey Maualuga was a tempting alternative.

When the pick was announced from the podium, and fans heard a name that was not "Rey Maualuga", there was an initial shock. But the shock rapidly submerged after the brain was given time to process that the name that was actually announced was "James Laurinaitis".

It was like burning a finger on the stove, and then feeling an instant relief after sticking it under ice cold water.

Apparently Rams' General Manager Bill Devaney, and Spagnuolo, felt that Maualuga was too slow, which made him a guy that could only play on first and second down in order to avoid pass coverage situations.

Laurinaitis, however, had all of the tools to be an every down defender.

And not to mention- Maualuga had some red flags relating to his personality, such as issues with alcohol that surfaced after he was arrested during a Halloween party in 2005, and he also had questions surrounding his overall attitude.

It's often very difficult for Devaney to overlook character issues, especially with high draft picks. It's a philosophy also shared by Spagnuolo, so the disinterest the Rams showed really came at no surprise.

Time To Walk The Walk  

It's one thing for St. Louis fans to discuss with each other why Laurinaitis might have have a better pick than Maualuga, but it's another thing for him to actually show it on the field.

The signs became increasingly evident during OTA's (Organized Team Activities) and training camp prior to the 2009 season.

It was being reported that Laurinaitis was steadily climbing the depth chart.

He was getting reps with second-string players, while the other highly touted rookie Jason Smith, who the Rams spent a No.2 overall pick on during the draft, was still with the third-string players; and Laurinaitis was practicing with the starters while Smith was with the second-stringers.

That's not a knock on Smith necessarily- it just shows that Laurinaitis was progressing at a very high level that would've been hard for any player to match.

Fans really got excited after Witherspoon was moved to outside linebacker in order to make room for Laurinaitis in the middle.

Witherspoon was always viewed as a talented player that was clearly out of place in the middle, so with a natural middle linebacker like Laurinaitis, and with Witherspoon going to his natural position, fan were hoping for a rejuvenated linebacker unit.

Thing didn't exactly play out in that fashion for the 2009 campaign.

Witherspoon was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles mid-season for wide receiver Brandon Gibson and a fifth round pick, and the defense hardly resembled a unit with a promising group of linebackers, as they ranked 27th in the NFL against the run, and 29th in overall defense.

But the overall futility of the defense didn't stop Laurinaitis from throwing together a promising rookie campaign.

He had 120 tackles, two interceptions and one forced fumble, which bought him a slight amount of consideration for the Rookie of the Year award, and he was able to start all 16 games for the Rams.

The fantastic rookie season was more than enough to excite fans for Laurinaitis' future, but the team's horrid 1-15 performance in 2009 was bound to create a few skeptics- especially people outside of St. Louis.

Those who were skeptical questioned whether or not Laurinaitis had a very high ceiling, meaning that his rookie season was possibly the best anyone could hope for, and perhaps he would struggle to develop into a top NFL linebacker.

They also thought that maybe he accumulated the stats he did simply because someone on the team had to make the tackles on that awful defense.

That's not to say there was a great amount of people who held that view, but a select few certainly did.

A Repeat Performance and A Pick For the Ages

Laurinaitis wasted no time progressing even further during the 2010 season.

Clearly there were not a lot of fans that had faith in the Rams after the 2009 debacle that resulted in a 1-15 record.

They didn't expect the team to compete, and the talk of the town was the newly drafted quarterback Sam Bradford.

So even though Laurinaitis was still on the fan's radar, he was not the center of their focus, since it's not everyday that your favorite team uses a No.1 overall pick on a quarterback who's meant to save the franchise.

Every day during the team's training camp, people wanted to know only one thing- How is Bradford progressing?

The answer to that question was more and more evident after Bradford began to put on a show during the preseason, which led to him winning the starting quarterback gig over veteran A.J. Feeley.

Bradford's preseason led to a lot of hype surrounding him personally, but fans were not prepared for what they'd witness during the regular season.

Everyone had expectations for Bradford, but no one knew how vital the play of Laurinaitis would be towards their season's outcome.

The Rams bounced back from the gutters of the NFL and put together a 7-9 record, and they missed the playoffs by one game.

Bradford was a big (maybe the biggest) factor in that turnaround, but that shift of momentum was also due to a surprisingly rejuvenated defense, which won the Rams a lot of their games.

His contributions took a back seat to Bradford's success, but Laurinaitis evolved from being a rookie with solid stats to the keystone piece of a shockingly solid Rams' defense.

He had a second year of solid stats (114 tackles, three sacks and on interception), and suddenly opposing running backs were no longer able to explode up the middle for 30 yard gains.

And it was cemented into the Rams' minds that they now have a leader that will be the face of their defense for years to come.

So while Maualuga might turn it around someday and become a solid contributor for some team, he is lacking the ability to do something that Laurinaitis has already started doing for the Rams, something that can't be measured at the NFL Combine.

He has become a player that can not only produce, but he is someone that the team can depend on and build around.

He is a franchise player that is a representative for the team, on and off the field.

Those are the type of players you'll find on Super Bowl winning teams, and those are the type of guys that help the franchise even after they're gone.

So given what current years have done to the Rams, James Laurinaitis is a pick for the ages.

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