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Nov 24, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (55) is introduced before a game against the Chicago Bears at the Edward Jones Dome. St. Louis defeated Chicago 42-21. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

James Laurinaitis One Of The Most Overpaid Players In The NFL? Nowhere Close.

Within every organization in any sport, there are always “polarizing” figures. For the St. Louis Rams, there are only a handful of truly debate-worthy individuals, headed by the not-so-cap friendly Sam Bradford. However, other names have crept up from time to time to spark some headed debates among fans. One of those players is James Laurinaitis…

Laurinaitis has been a pillar in the Rams defense since being drafted at the top of the second round by St. Louis back in 2009. At the end of 2012, the former-Buckeye signed a five-year/$41.5 million contract extension, giving him what is currently the 6th-highest average annual salary in the NFL among inside linebackers (roughly $8.3 million per season). A combination of perceived “poor performance” and that massive contract have proven to be the proverbial flint and stone that sparks debate about the Rams defensive signal caller. In fact, Bleacher Report’s Tyson Langland recently named James Laurinaitis one of his five “most grossly overpaid” players in the NFL. Here are his thoughts:

“… Laurinaitis does in fact make more money on a yearly basis than both [Daryl] Washington and [Derrick] Johnson.

I know, it doesn’t seem plausible since Laurinaitis finished the 2013 season with 13 missed tackles and an awful run-defense rating of minus-5.7, but that’s what happens when an organization overpays for a mediocre player.

At the time of Laurinaitis’ $41.5 million extension, the team was starved for playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Furthermore, the Rams didn’t have a player to fill his shoes in the middle, so their only choice was to keep him.

If Laurinaitis wasn’t a total liability against the run, St. Louis could justify his bloated salary. But that’s simply not the case. Don’t be surprised when the Rams move on from him at the end of the 2014 season. ” – Tyson Langland

Regardless of your personal view of James Laurinaitus, labeling the Rams inside linebacker “mediocre” is a tough sell.

Since his inception into the NFL, the St. Louis’ signal caller has ranked Top 10 in the NFL in solo tackles in four of his five seasons; the last player to accomplish that feat in his first five seasons was Patrick Willis. In his most recent season, despite being dethroned by Alec Ogletree for the tackle title in St. Louis, Laurinaitis ranked Top 15 in nearly every other meaningful category, including sacks, fumble recoveries, pass deflections, interceptions, and, most importantly, defensive stops. He was also one of only two inside linebackers to play at least 75% of total defensive snaps and not allow a touchdown in coverage, despite dropping back on 50.8% of his defensive snaps last year.

However, to directly address some of the issues mentioned in the article by Langland…

The post does make an interesting point on “missed tackles,” but throws that figure into the equation without much context. To be fair, Laurinaitis did, in fact, miss 13 tackles last season. However, Derrick Johnson, who was ironically used as a contrasting figure, lead the NFL in missed tackles, while Luke Kuechly, the reining AP Defensive Player of the Year, missed 14 tackles during the 2013 regular season. To put that number into even greater context, Laurinaitis also ranked Top 10 in tackling efficiency versus the run among inside linebacker that played at least 75% of the team’s defensive snaps; ahead of both Kuechly and Johnson. Context.

Langland also dredges up Laurinaitis’ putrid -5.7 run stoppage grade, which comes courtesy of Pro Football Focus (PFF). However, PFF has been known to significantly undervalue 4-3 linebackers, made blatantly obvious by Kuechly grading outside of the Top 5 overall inside linebackers in the NFL last season. In fact, the Carolina Panthers’ master defender graded out 20th overall among linebackers, according to PFF, with 15 of those “superior” linebackers playing in a 3-4 base. Moreover, despite subjectively grading Laurinaitis 41st overall among inside linebackers against the run (out of 55),  he ranked 20th overall in run stop percentage (i.e. the percentage of a player’s run defense snaps where he was responsible for a run stop), easily trumping players like Daryl Washington and Patrick Willis.

In fact, using run stop percentage as a reasonable metric for an individual’s ability to “stop the run,” Laurinaitis has ranked in the Top 20 in four of his five NFL seasons, and within the Top 10 twice, including 3rd overall in 2010. While the might not seem impressive, Patrick Willis, who is widely regarded as one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL, has broken into the Top 20 only twice in the last five seasons, and has never ranked higher than 18th in run stop percentage since 2009.

To compare those “run stoppage” numbers to some of the other top paid inside linebackers, the five players averaging a higher annual salary than Laurinaitis ranked 4th, 9th, 16th, 32nd, or did not play enough snaps to qualify (Brian Cushing) for a ranking last year; the five players directly below Laurinaitis’ annual salary ranked 1st (Paul Posluszny), 24th, 28th, 29th, or did not play enough snaps to qualify (Sean Lee) for a ranking last year.

To put it simply, Laurinaitis has produced at a rate well worth the amount of money he is being paid by the St. Louis Rams. Despite having a “mediocre” supporting cast for the vast majority of his career and being forced to play in the nickel package more than any other inside linebacker in the NFL, the former-Ohio State superstar has consistently put up Top 10 figures across the board. Assuming that most would base players’ annual salaries on “their numbers” on the field, Laurinaitis is right in the ballpark of where he should be getting paid. Better yet, he’ll only be averaging $6.1 million from 2015 through 2017, which would barely notch his annual salary within the Top 15 inside linebackers in the league. Bargain.

…oh yea! James Laurinaitis has only missed 13 total defensive snaps since 2009 (out of 5,449).

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