James Laurinaitis was one of the worst starting linebackers in football last season.
With most every other sub par linebacker (or player, in general), there is one redeemable trait that can be schemed around and used tactfully. In 2015, that was not the case with Laurinaitis. He had his handful of open clean-up plays, sure, but most any other linebacker in the league could have been substituted in for most of those snaps and made the same play. For every one good play Laurinaitis had, he matched it with at least five or six awful plays.
He was too slow, for one. Not just in the physical sense, but often in the mental sense. If you watch each snap in about quarter-of-a-second chunks, the other linebackers on the team are, a majority of the time, moving closer to the ball much more immediately than Laurinaitis was. The other linebackers on the team, primarily Mark Barron, could react without thinking, whereas Laurinaitis seemed to have rusted gears grinding together in his head on every snap.
This play shows Laurinaitis lacking in both mental speed and physical speed. There is a gaping hole for Laurinaitis to fly through and make a play in, but the play is almost entirely derailed from the start. Look at his first step. Instead of stepping directly toward the line of scrimmage, he has to pivot a bit and direct his body to the area first. Notice the backer next to him, Akeem Ayers, immediately steps downhill and to his left. Had Laurinaitis done the same, he'd have been able to get into the hole earlier and give the running back much less space to make a cut back. Instead, Laurinaitis is slow to get to the area, overextends his angle too wide and ultimately allows the running back to cut back and pick up nearly 20 yards.
Here are a few more examples of Laurinaitis being too slow to make a play.
So many open gaps to shoot; so many missed opportunities.
Laurinaitis also played without tenacity, for the most part. There would be an occasional play or two where he sprinted through an open A-gap to make a play, but he was scared (and physically incapable) of taking direct angles and had zero affinity or ability in handling blockers. He was manhandled a lot of the time.
Some of the plays above show his lack of wanting to take harsh angles, especially the last play, but one play versus the Cardinals highlights that fear with his inability to fight blockers.
As soon as Laurinaitis passes where Larry Fitzgerald is blocking Barron, he needs to blow up No.76 (Mike Iupati) and force the running back into a train wreck. Instead, Laurinaitis stays conservative and allows the block to come to him, keeping himself away from the running back and likely allowing about five more yards than he should have.
Laurinaitis fails to blow up a blocker to make a play in the example below, too. He could clog the running lane by forcing the blocker backwards. Granted, Michael Brockers also does not get the penetration that he should have, but Laurinaitis had a chance to save the play and he couldn't.
Oddly enough, there are other times where he will take on blockers for no reason. It is almost as if he takes on a block because being physical is just what a linebacker should do. Whatever the rationale is, it leads to him whiffing on big plays. He does not take on those blocks with any sort of success in those situations either, but he sure he likes to try.
There is a huge gap between the center and the fullback/tight end who is lead blocking. There is no need to take on that lead blocker. Laurinaitis could have carried himself further to the left and shot right into the running back's hips. The play ended up being stuffed by Brockers and William Hayes regardless, but Laurinaitis could have made a play in the backfield. He instead opted to hit somebody for the sake of doing so.
For the betterment of the Rams linebacking corps, Laurinaitis is gone and now the New Orleans Saints problem. Alec Ogletree, who will be coming off of an injury, will assume his role as the full time middle linebacker. Barron and Ayers will likely be by his side when in base sets, with Barron presumably taking more of the nickel snaps than Ayers (when only two linebackers are on the field, one being substituted for a defensive back). Barron is the biggest play maker of the bunch, even if that comes with a handful of miscalculated risks, too. Ayers has some ability taking on blocks and setting the edge, though he does not have the athleticism or coverage ability to be more than average. Ogletree is the focal point of the second level now.
Ogletree is not without fault, of course. He can be a bit hesitant at times (far less often than Laurinaitis, though) and does not have the lower body strength to hold his ground well against blockers, but he has a redeemable trait that can help him be a key player for the Rams.
Ogletree is fast. He is very fast. Linebackers, especially his size, should not be able to cover as much ground as he does. He can legitimately make plays across the field and his range has saved a number of big plays in the past. Though he missed all but four games last season, it was clear that he was the best linebacker on the team last year and should be primed to uphold that status in 2016.
Tenacity is a huge part of Ogletree's game. When he sees something, he goes from 0-60 MPH in a heartbeat. He wants to make plays. As stated before, Ogletree is not the strongest linebacker, but he understands that and can often find ways around it. There are many times where he can simply out run a lineman and beat them to the point of attack. Ogletree has gotten fairly good at understanding body leverage, though, and how to use that to his advantage.
On this play, Ogletree sees that the left tackle is moving sharply to his right. Instead of Ogletree planting his feet squarely to take on the blocker, Ogletree plants his left foot in front of the blocker and then drives through the left side of his body, forcing the lineman to spiral off right into the running lane. Ogletree won this play not only because he is so quick off the snap, but because he understood how to best combat the lineman in his way. These sort of explosive plays are what make Ogletree a valuable player, especially with how often the Rams defensive line is able to open up lanes for him to take advantage of.
Ogletree's value spans beyond the run game, though. He is a great asset as a coverage player. He as the athleticism to run with any tight end and has the range to swarm on receivers when he is playing zone coverage.
This man is relentless. First of all, it is impressive to see how quickly Ogletree sorts through the traffic and makes up ground after Laurinaitis fails to jam the tight end. He then sticks with his man like glue up until the ball is out, then he turns into a head hunter and does his part in being a tone setter by laying the wood on poor Jermaine Kearse. Ogletree has an energy to him that embodies the "lead by example" mentality.
The Rams group of linebackers is not special, but it has a definite centerpiece in Ogletree, a play maker in Barron and a contributor in Ayers. More than likely, Ayers will need to be replaced after the year, but options are limited in how that can be done. As it stands, the Rams only top 100 pick in 2017 is their 2nd round pick and it would be tough to rationalize spending a team's only premium pick on a linebacker.
An alternative could be to sign someone, whether it is a big signing or another stop gap. Big name future free agents, like Jamie Collins, are tough to predict whether or not they will be re-signed by their original team, but less popular players are safer to project hitting the market. A few names to keep an eye on could be Jelani Jenkins (Miami Dolphins), AJ Klein (Carolina Panthers) and Brandon Marshall (Denver Broncos).
Ogletree and Barron make for a very intriguing duo, but adding a third quality linebacker could really make this Rams defense menacing. It will interesting to see how the current starters play next year and how the Rams handle the position next off-season.