James Laurinaitis is a very talented linebacker. A 2009 2nd round pick, he has graded out positively overall over the past 3 years as a starter and ranked 14th overall among middle linebackers in 2010 on ProFootballFocus. He’s managed 100+ tackles in each of his first 3 years in the league, good for a combined 376 tackles, a whopping 310 of which were solo. Heading into the final year of his rookie deal, the Rams were known to be working on a long term extension with Laurinaitis and agreed to terms with him today on a 5 year, 41.5 million dollar extension with 23.5 million of that guaranteed.
The issue is that middle linebackers just didn’t get paid that much money this offseason or even historically really. Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, and David Hawthorne got 27.5 million, 25.5 million, and 19 million respectively over 5 years. Laurinaitis gets 41.5 million, with a whopping 23.5 million guaranteed. Is Laurinaitis really that much better of a player than those guys? In a passing league, that is just too much money for a non-rush linebacker, with rare exceptions. Look at the deal Patrick Willis got 2 years ago. Willis got 7 years, 53.51 million with 29 million guaranteed. That’s less money per year than Laurinaitis. Willis did get more years and more guaranteed money, but he’s a significantly superior player.
The only recent deal that compares to this one is the 5 year, 42.5 million dollar deal to the Browns gave to D’Qwell Jackson this offseason and that deal looked pretty bad at the time too and even worse when guys like Lofton, Tulloch, and Hawthorne got significantly less. Jackson also got just 10.4 million guaranteed. Laurinaitis’ deal is worse because of the larger amount of guaranteed money and because the Rams had 3 deals to similar caliber players to use as a reference point. The Rams simply overrated Laurinaitis, paying him on the level of Patrick Willis, whereas the Browns’ mistake was just signing Jackson too quickly and not letting the market set the price.
The Rams were smart to lock up Laurinaitis now because the franchise tag value is inflated for linebackers because of rush linebackers, so the Rams would have probably had to guarantee Laurinaitis upwards of 9 million in 2013 if they tagged him (the tag was worth 8.8 million for linebackers this season). That wouldn’t have been a realistic option. However, giving Laurinaitis over 8 million per season over 5 years, with more than half of that being guaranteed, is not much of a better option. In fact, it may even be worse because it’s for a longer period of time.