A decorated Buckeye linebacker, James Laurinaitis is a very polarizing figure among the Rams fan base and in general, most likely due to his 2013-2014 cap hits and lack of consistent splash plays. However, his superior football instincts, reliability and steady leadership in times of calamity are a constant in an otherwise tumultuous era.
In the summer of 2012, Fisher, Snead and the Rams decided to make Laurinaitis the middle linebacker of the future by extending him through the 2017 season, with $24.7M in guaranteed money. His cap hit jumped from $1.8M in 2012 to $12.65M in 2013 and $9.65M in 2014, putting the target firmly on Laurinaitis' back and raised questions about him being a 2015 cap casualty.
A patient stalwart in the middle of a young, rowdy and playmaking Rams defense, Laurinaitis has not missed a game since his 2009 rookie year (96 games and counting) and is proving to be one of the most sure tacklers in the NFL. The three time defensive captain is also viewed as an extension of DC Gregg Williams (5 minute mark), and is closing on the Rams tackle record.
The Rams did not draft a linebacker prospect until Day 3 (Bryce Hager in the 7th round), and brought in OLB Akeem Ayers in free agency to challenge Jo-Lonn Dunbar, so it does not appear that the Rams are in hurry to upgrade the middle linebacker position for 2015. Behind Laurinaitis on the depth chart is veritable Swiss Army knife Daren Bates, who is a special teams ace and otherwise human firecracker who could go off at any moment.
However, there is not much of a roster battle as long as Laurinaitis remains able.
With his modest $4.275M cap hit, if the Rams continue to get sound tackling, on field coaching, 3-4 sacks/2-3 INTs and a few splash plays from the 28 year old, fans should consider him at fair value. Anything more, and he may earn his first Pro Bowl bid, especially if the defense plays at a consistently elite status.
If he falters and has a down year, there will certainly be plenty of concern for his future with the Rams. His cap number jumps to $6.4M in 2016.
Laurinaitis has earned the trust of his DC, and is the unquestioned leader of the defense. The success of the defensive unit is firmly on his shoulders, and he knows it.