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St. Louis Rams’ LB James Laurinaitis: On The Cusp?

What do London Fletcher, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Daryl Washington, and James Laurinaitis all have in common? Quite a bit actually...

Dilip Vishwanat

For starters, they’re all middle/interior linebackers in the NFC. Fletcher, entering his 16th years as a pro, was with the Rams during the Greatest Show on Turf days, and obtained his lone Super Bowl [XXXIV] ring in 1999-2000 season. Willis, Bowman, Washington, and Laurinaitis don’t have the hardware, but their dynamic skill sets - paired with their leadership qualities - make their presence on the field no less imperative.

Another commonality amongst the group [at least the majority of it] is that the aforementioned leadership abilities haven’t gone unnoticed. Fletcher, Willis, and Laurinaitis all captained their team’s defensive units in 2012. Laurinaitis was asked to serve a leadership role in just his sophomore year in the NFL [2010]. He hasn’t let the Rams down. What he’s done on the field often goes unmentioned, but as a result of his work ethic, football intelligence, and consistent play, his role as captain has never been in question.

One final parallel I’ll draw amongst this group of LB’s comes in the form of statistic. Each of these middle/inside linebackers is notorious for their ability end the play when they make contact. To some, "tackles" is viewed as an overrated stat line, while "missed tackles" initiates campaign for one's prompt departure. This group has nothing to worry about. They’re some of the NFL’s best…

Most Tackles In The NFL [2010-2012]

London Fletcher
James Laurinaitis
Patrick Willis
NaVorro Bowman

The chart above provides a quick snapshot as to why these players have been so valuable to their team’s defense, and why they’ve earned the respect of their peers throughout the league. More pertinent, let’s take a look at how these players performed in the most recent season:

Player [2012]
NaVorro Bowman
James Laurinaitis
London Fletcher
Daryl Washington
Patrick Willis

That’s enough about what they have in common. There are a couple of very key differences between these LB’s.

First, James Laurinaitis is the only true MLB of the bunch. There are obviously notable differences between 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, but with more field to cover - and being expected to patrol sideline to sideline - Laurinaitis’ ability to read the play and quickly take down ball-carriers shouldn’t go unnoticed. JL55 finished 2nd in the NFC in tackles in 2012, 22 behind league-leader Luke Kuechly, and two ahead of Seahawks’ MLB Bobby Wagner.

One final - more so defining - difference amongst these players is was their selection to the 2013 Pro Bowl. Four out of these five players were chosen to the represent the NFC in one of the NFL's most meaningless exhibitions. Pro Bowl zings aside, it’s an honor to be named to the team, and James Laurinaitis is the only player in this group who wasn’t invited.

Now, to be fair, I’m not suggesting that Laurinaitis should’ve replaced any of these players. Moreover, I’m definitely not stating Pro Bowl selections should be based on one statistic. Fans are going to vote for their favorite players, and those on teams in larger markets are going to have an added advantage. It’s a popularity contest to an extent. Patrick Willis is the best inside linebacker in the game, but did London Fletcher - who is probably one of the most well-liked players in the NFL - make the trip to Hawaii because he’s one of the four best ILB’s in the NFC, or as a result of sustained respect from other NFL players?

Whether or not you buy what former Pro Bowler, and Vikings’ CB, Antoine Winfield is selling, he makes two valid points, and provides something to consider when pondering what's kept Laurinaitis out of the Pro Bowl. It took Winfield a decade before he made his first [of three] Pro Bowl appearance…He didn’t think it should’ve taken that long:

If you're in a small market, no one really gets to see you play…If you’re a quiet guy, it’s hard to get the attention.

Being outspoken and in a large market, are two things James Laurinaitis isn't, and I don’t suspect that either will change any time soon. The popularity of the team could increase with wins in 2013, but trying to compete for air time with the San Francisco 49ers would be futile. And while he’s vocal when necessary, the league probably won’t ask the Rams’ "Mike" linebacker to get mic’d up this season.

There are knocks on his game that may also contribute to being overlooked. His 0.5 sack in 2012 speaks to his involvement in the pass rush. Despite the Rams tying for the NFL lead in sacks [52], the scheme doesn't really require Laurinaitis to get heavily involved in the pass rush. Aside from an occasional delayed blitz - which rarely leads to taking down the QB - Laurinaitis won’t become a household name as a result of his sack celebrations.

Laurinaitis hasn’t always performed well in coverage, especially earlier in his young career. He has shown improvement from season to season, though. Having Alec Ogletree and Jo-Lonn Dunbar as a supporting cast should aid in his continued improvement, as he’ll no longer be expected to over-compensate for the inability of others [re: Leber & Poppinga, 2011].

With that being said, James Laurinaitis is a Top 10 inside linebacker in the NFL - who will likely be playing on a Top 10 defense - and it’s about time he got recognized for it. With the expected high-level of play from the ten players who surround him, 2013 could be a year in which James Laurinaitis puts together a Pro Bowl campaign.