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St. Louis Rams, James Laurinaitis And The Middle Linebacker Market

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One down, one to go. The St. Louis Rams inked defensive end Chris Long to a four-year extension just as training camp began this year. Next on this list of priorities is locking up middle linebacker James Laurinaitis before he reaches free agency in 2013.

Jim Thomas reported on Monday that the two sides are talking.

It is hard to imagine that a deal does not eventually get done, though one should probably never assume anything when it comes to the world of NFL contracts. The going rate for linebackers declined a little this season, in part because there were a bumper crop of good free agents on the market this year.

The Lions extended MLB Stephen Tulloch, agreeing to a five-year, $25.5 million deal with $11.25 guaranteed. Tulloch has three more season under his belt than JL. New Orleans signed former Falcons MLB Curtis Lofton to a similar deal, five-years, $27.5 with $7.8 million guaranteed.

Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson signed a stunning five-year, $42.5 million deal with $19 million guaranteed. It was an outlier deal to say the least, but the cost of doing business in Cleveland. Making it even more of a headscratcher is Jackson's injury history; he played in just six games between 2009 and 2010.

Comparing those guys using the numbers at Pro Football Focus, Tulloch received the highest score last season, with an overall grade of 20.9. Jackson was next with an overall score of 18.4. Lofton scored a 12.8, and Laurinaitis had a 5.6.

Laurinaitis beat them all in 2010 with a 14.2 score. The numbers from PFF are not a perfect, precise comparison, but they do give us a little more of an apples to apples means of looking at players. Laurinaitis' numbers were surely hurt because of the play around him last season. To boil it down to simple terms, the Rams middle linebacker is inherently comparable to all of the players mentioned above.

If no deal gets done before 2013 rolls around, the Rams have the option of using the franchise tag, and with Chris Long signed, they do not have to choose which player gets it. The franchise tender amount for linebackers this year was $8.8 million, down from $10.1 the year before. Using the tag is not the best way to engender warm feelings between a player and his team, but it buys more time for a long-term deal.

Though it is impossible to know for sure, there is virtually no way that Laurinaitis will not be wearing a Rams uni in 2013, be it on a one-year franchise tender or a long-term contract.

I'm swearing off homerism this season, but the Rams really do need to keep JL here. The Ohio State product is that rare kind of cornerstone type guy that successful franchises do not allow to get away as they hit the prime of their career.